Enter the Meta-Veg
This time of year it can be a challenge to name a single item of produce that isn’t ripe. The earth has tilted squarely toward peak veg, the gazpacho days of summer when anyone can be a vegetarian with barely an effort. Even the most dedicated carnivore might find themselves satisfied, at the end of a meat-free meal, and not even realize it. I get that way for a salad I call Greco Roman Caprese. I realize that by going public with such a name, I might never be able to travel freely on the Island of Capri, where the iconic salad of tomato, basil and mozzarella is supposed to have originated. But I mean it with the utmost respect.
My capricious version employs feta cheese instead of mozzarella, and adds cucumber, onion, garlic, lemon juice, vinegar and not just basil but parsley and even thyme. So it’s truly a stretch to call this salad caprese. But when the tomato, basil and cheese find each other in your mouth, and that distinct flavor combination hits, I don’t know what else we are supposed to call it.
Still, the ingredients change it. To me, the most striking part of this salad is how the acids from the tomato juice, vinegar, and lemon all combine. Redundancy is underrated. Adding multiple sources of acid creates a more complex flavor than would a single sour ingredient.
The relatively mild-mannered cucumber’s job is to provide an aquatic stage upon which the stronger flavors can play out their drama. Those refreshing chunks serve as a peaceful counterpoint to the swirl of herbs, acids, and spicy allium bulbs. The sharp and savory pizzazz of garlic and onion dance on the cheese and tomato while flavoring the acids with their spicy pungency. When I stir it together and the fragrances combine, my whole body feels hungry for this earthy, savory combination, each bite like a splashy step through a freshly watered garden.
The other day I made another batch, and the leftovers were mostly dressing, which I used to season baked eggplant. First I sliced the eggplants in half, end-to-end, and cut a little bit off the bottom of each half, so they could sit flat with the cut sides facing up. I placed as many of these halves as I could fit into a deep oven pan. Then, with a short knife I scored crosshatches on each cut face, so they looked like pieces of graph paper. I topped each half with a sprinkle of salt, a spoonful of minced garlic, and a pour of olive oil, and then drenched everything in the leftover Greco Roman dressing. After baking for two hours at 350 I let the eggplant cool. The next day, I shoveled my next batch of salad atop the room temperature eggplant. And once again, I entered the meta-veg.
Greco Roman Caprese
Remember, while vegetables are the star of this salad, it depends on the creamy, salty feta to pull the whole thing together. Don’t skimp on the cheese.
1 medium onion, minced finely
3 pressed garlic cloves
2 lemon’s worth 8-10 tablespoons
1 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic
3 tablespoons white or red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons salt
2 lb cucumber – I preferred it peeled – sliced into roughly half-inch chunks or rounds
One large bunch of parsley, leaves pulled from the stalks
One large bunch of basil, leaves pulled from the stalks
One bunch of thyme, leaves only (optional)
3 lb – or more – tomatoes (preferably a mix), cut into chunks about an inch on a side
1 pound sheep feta, cut into ½-inch or so cubes
In a bowl, combine the onion, garlic, lemon juice, vinegars, salt and olive oil. Set this dressing aside while you prep the vegetables and cheese.
Add the cucumbers to a large bowl, followed by the tomatoes, parsley, basil leaves, and feta. Add the dressing and lightly toss, lifting from the bottom. We don’t want to crumble the feta, crush the tomatoes or mangle the herbs.
Serve immediately, and when the chunks are gone, save the dressing. You can use it as a marinade or a sauce for baked eggplant or zucchini. Or drink it, like the Greco Roman elixir it is.