In search of the ultimate Greek salad ... and purslane
On holiday in the sunny Greek islands in peak season, the Greek salad turned out to be my best option for getting my daily fix of greens and providing the perfect counterfoil to our meals of barbecued octopus, lamb souvlaki or grilled fish. It was invariably reasonably priced and I ended up chowing down on one each day, sometimes two, so I had ample opportunities to critically analyse them.
The salad typically comprised the usual base of tomato pieces but these were red, ripe and full-flavoured. Mixed in were rounds of cucumber plus capsicum, purple onion, black or green olives in oil, topped with a slab of Greek fetta and a sprinkle of dried oregano. It was served at room temperature with little bottles of Greek olive oil and vinegar to dress it. The fetta was a real surprise. Not salty/briny fetta as we find in Australia but softer lightly salted fetta that had a creamy texture somewhere between firm tofu and thick Greek yoghurt.
Each island offered its own variation on the basic ingredients. On Santorini, large home-grown capers were added, sometimes with pickled caper bush leaves, which added a pleasant tang, sometimes fresh oregano leaves. On Rodos, we dined on one with cherry tomatoes and finely-sliced fennel which was delicious. On Crete, baby rocket was mixed in. Another had a huge garnish of purslane (pigweed) sitting on top.
Nutritionally the humble Greek salad is a winner and a god-send for tourists. It’s an easy light meal in itself with bread or an accompaniment to barbecued fish or meat. It gives you at least three serves of vegetables, adds the super power of tomatoes with their lycopene and vitamin C, is high in fibre and antioxidants. If you add olive oil, this will boost the absorption of the fat-soluble antioxidants (I always did – it made a nice ‘sauce’ for the crusty bread to soak up).
Its only drawback is of course the higher than usual salt level thanks to the olives and fetta. Based on Australian figures, I estimate this to be around 900 mg from 5 black olives and 80 g of fetta but of course it will depend on the make (the fetta I sampled in Greece tasted decidedly mild in salt). This sodium figure is on par with a 50 g snack pack of pretzels so it’s up there with other salted foods. Of course you can reduce this at home by using fewer olives (just slice into slivers so you get a hint of olive without the full salt hit) and buying a salt-reduced fetta.
I visited Crete in search of the traditional Med Diet and one of its chief ingredients, purslane, a native wild green that grows wild on Crete and is a rich source of ALA, one of the simpler omega-3 fatty acids. Researchers have hypothesised that purslane is one of the reasons why the Med Diet is so beneficial to health. But I was disappointed. Despite my queries around Heraklion and Rethymo, I never managed to find any in markets or cafes. Waiters looked blankly at me. All was not wasted as it turned up in Turkey (another Med Diet country with more olive trees than I’ve ever seen growing on every spare metre of land). There it was in a simple salad with a light creamy dressing at a roadside taverna. Served with three other vegetable dishes as a mixed entree before our main course. It had a delicious flavour, crunchy and a tangle of green tuberous stems and bright green leaves. I enjoyed every mouthful.
Catherine Saxelby is an accredited dietitian and nutritionist and runs the Foodwatch Nutrition Centre. Her latest publication is The Shopper's Guide to Light Foods for Weight Loss (available as a PDF). For more information, visit foodwatch.com.au.