A Salad for This Season

Levy is a cookbook author

Since I am always experimenting with new recipes, there are only a few dishes I make often. But there is one salad I prepare almost every day. It is made of three basic ingredients--tomatoes, cucumbers and onion--and is seasoned with salt and pepper. No separate dressing is needed, just a dash of olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.

Popular in Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and throughout the eastern Mediterranean area, it is known simply as vegetable salad. I first became familiar with it as Israeli salad when I lived in that country, where no dinner, from a casual supper to a wedding reception, is complete without it. If you've eaten falafel, you'll recognize it as the salad that's added to the pita bread with the falafel balls.

The salad's character derives from the way the vegetables are cut. The tomatoes and cucumbers are diced in small cubes and the onion is finely chopped. Many call it chopped salad, but this is somewhat misleading--its texture would be mushy if you chopped the cucumbers and tomatoes instead of cutting them in an even dice. Israelis insist that the cubes be very small and often joke about former residents of the country like me, saying that you can tell how long you've been away from Israel by how large your dice is.

There are many seasonal variations. The onion can be green, yellow or red. In spring, diced radishes might be added. Diced sweet peppers of all colors make a beautiful and tasty summertime accent. Some people stir in a little finely shredded red or green cabbage or strips of Romaine lettuce, spinach or arugula. Although not traditional, I find that diced celery, jicama or even the white stalks of bok choy contribute a pleasant crunch.

As for herbs, the favorite in the region is Italian parsley; next comes cilantro. Some of my Israeli relatives add minced jalapeno-type peppers or a dash of hot pepper sauce. Stirring in cubes of feta cheese and garnishing the salad with a few black olives makes it more substantial and turns it into a cousin of the Greek salad.

Changing the dressing gives the salad a completely different character. A richer eastern Mediterranean version calls for adding tahini, the popular sesame sauce. And if you substitute yogurt for the dressing ingredients, you'll have a salad resembling Indian raita.

Unlike green salad, diced vegetable salad does not need to be tossed at the last moment and can be made several hours ahead. Somehow, cutting the vegetables small helps them absorb the seasonings better and makes them more flavorful than if they were simply sliced as in the typical American dinner salad. Mediterranean Vegetable Salad adds a fresh, colorful touch to any menu and can entice family members, even the children, to eat more vegetables.

Be sure to use ripe tomatoes--plum tomatoes or medium or large tomatoes--that are not too soft. For cucumbers, the long European type or small pickling cucumbers are best, but any cucumbers can be used. This salad is prettiest served in a shallow glass bowl.

MEDITERRANEAN VEGETABLE SALAD

1/2 long European cucumber, or 3 pickling cucumbers, or 1 medium cucumber, peeled and finely diced

8 plum tomatoes, or 4 medium tomatoes, finely diced

2 green onions, chopped

3 to 4 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley

1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 to 2 teaspoons strained lemon juice

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

Hot pepper sauce, optional

Combine cucumbers, tomatoes, green onions and parsley in large, shallow serving bowl. Add olive oil, lemon juice and season to taste with salt, pepper and hot pepper sauce. Serve at cool room temperature. Makes 4 servings.

Jicama and bok choy are not Mediterranean vegetables, but they make a delicious new addition to the region's traditional vegetable salad.

MEDITERRANEAN DICED SALAD, CALIFORNIA STYLE

1/2 long European cucumber, or 3 pickling cucumbers, or 1 medium cucumber, peeled and finely diced

8 plum tomatoes, or 4 medium tomatoes, cut into very small dice

1/2 cup chopped red onion

1 small sweet red, yellow or green pepper, finely diced

1/2 cup finely diced jicama

1/2 cup finely diced bok choy, white part only

3 to 4 tablespoons chopped parsley or cilantro

1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 to 2 teaspoons strained fresh lemon juice

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

Hot pepper sauce, optional

Combine diced cucumber, tomatoes, onion, peppers, jicama, bok choy and parsley in large, shallow serving bowl. Add olive oil and lemon juice. Season to taste with salt, pepper and hot pepper sauce. Serve at cool room temperature. Makes 4 servings.

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