This summer salad template is called Grandpa’s Greek salad in my family. Use the best tomatoes you can find and just a few other ingredients. Mix them together and let the salad marinate for an hour or overnight. Like magic, you’ll get an amazingly simple, yet delicious, summer salad.
Perfect as is, you can sop up the juice with any bread. My favorite is challah. Crusty bread, such as a French baguette, sour dough, or peasant-type black bread works well too. Whether the bread is fresh or slightly stale, it soaks up the juice. Before it gets too soft, you can even use the bread to help “guide” the salad onto your spoon. Doesn’t that sound scrumptious?
This salad comes from my mother’s father, my Grandpa William. He immigrated to the US from Romania when he was a teenager. He came alone on a ship, and stayed with cousins in New York while he looked for a job.
I was less than 10 years old when Grandpa William died and heard only sketchy details of his life before I was born. Consequently, my memories of him consist mostly of how he amused me. He loved to do card tricks or cut the skin of an orange in one long, swirly piece. I remember too his kind face and pleasant laugh.
This photo is iconic. Grandpa, my mom, and my aunt in the late 1920’s. Isn’t he dapper? Although my Grandpa William never went to school in the US, he was both well spoken and well read. My mom says he learned English from reading the newspaper. That seems right, as I remember him sitting in his wing chair reading the newspaper whenever we would visit.
I wish I knew more about him than I do. Once I asked my mom to tell me about his childhood, his travels to the US, and what it was like for him as a recent immigrant. But she says she never asked him and so most of those stories are lost. Now 95 years old, when she was young, my mom was too wrapped up in her own life to consider how fascinating her own father’s life before kids must have been.
One thing I do know was that Grandpa William cooked. In an age when a home kitchen was generally a woman’s preserve, Mom says he did it “out of self-defense.” Grandma’s idea of dinner was boiled chicken and limp vegetables. I remember watching him add ketchup to that dish in a valiant effort to give it taste. When he wasn’t finding ways to make Grandma’s dishes palatable, he took matters into his own hands.
And this Greek salad was one of his favorite dishes. Although my mom never learned most of his recipes, she did pass this simple one down to me. We had it every summer when I was growing up. Now, as soon as I see beautiful tomatoes at a farmstand or my CSA, I think of this salad.
Like much else about him, the origins of Grandpa’s Greek salad recipe remain a mystery. When I was growing up, there were only three vegetables in this salad – tomatoes, green pepper, and celery – and no cheese. A few years ago I asked my mom why the salad she taught me to make did not include feta and olives, typical ingredients in “standard” Greek salad recipes. It turns out that as kids, she and her older sister disliked them. So, to please his family, Grandpa took those ingredients out of the recipe. I often put them back in, smiling as I do – for all the parents who bent to the culinary wishes of their kids and wondering what my Grandpa would have done in the age of Stay at Stove Dad.
Three Tips for Making Great Greek Salad
- Use the best tomatoes. Don’t bother making this salad until you can get fabulous tomatoes. Whether they are bought or homegrown, the tomatoes must be so good that you would sigh with happiness if you bit into one. Great summer tomatoes are one of life’s joys. If I could live in a place where the tomatoes were this good all year round, I would probably eat one a day. As it is, I will never tire of summer salads like this one, that use tomatoes as their base, or of tomato sandwiches, with great bread and a slathering of mayonnaise.
- Let the salad “steep” for at least 1 hour, preferably longer. The salad creates its own juice if the tomatoes are good and allowed to marinate in the simple dressing. So plan ahead and allow time for the tomatoes to steep in the dressing/juice. I often make the salad the night before.
- Make it a template. Get creative. Think of the salad as a base and add whatever other ingredients strike your fancy. I start with feta and olives. How about cucumber? Consider capers. What about scallions? Fresh mint might be nice. You get the point. There are infinite possibilities.
Recently my son Liam and his husband came for a visit. We named Liam after my Grandpa William, with the Gaelic version of William in honor of my husband’s Irish roots. Although William never got to meet his great grandson, I’m sure that they would have enjoyed each other. And Liam is as good a cook as William was, which makes me smile as I imagine the two of them cooking together or trading recipes.
I made this batch of Grandpa’s Greek salad with the first good tomatoes I got this year from our CSA (community supported agriculture) share. The first of many Greek salads we’ll enjoy this summer, it brought me back to my own mother’s table, where I often sat down to a bowl of Greek salad on hot summer days. And every time I cut vegetables or mix them up for this salad, I’ll think of my mom and her dad, Grandpa William. My very own Romanian Jewish version of Proust’s madeleine.
Grandpa's Greek Salad
Use this simple Greek salad as a template, adding your own favorite vegetables. It's a summertime favorite in our family and will provide you with a marvelous palette on which to build - or serve it "as is."
- 1 pound tomatoes
- 1 green bell pepper
- 1 stalk celery
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- kosher or sea salt
- freshly ground pepper
Chop each of the vegetables into small, bite-sized pieces. I like to cut roughly 1/2-inch cubes.
Mix the vegetables together in a medium-large bowl. Add the sugar, wine vinegar, salt and pepper and mix again. Refrigerate for at least one hour to give the tomatoes time to marinate and let their juices mix in with the vinegar.