Salad doesn't get any simpler or more delicious than this: ripe tomatoes, and crunchy cucumbers dressed with a squeeze of fresh lemon, and a drizzle of sharp olive oil. Add some minced onion for bite, a sprinkle of sea salt and fresh herbs from the garden, parsley and mint.
When Arabs talk about salad, they are not talking about a big bowl full of leafy greens. Middle Eastern salads are dainty, bright and beautiful, made from finely chopped mixtures of fresh vegetables and herbs. Palestinians pride themselves on their cutting skills - a good cook is known by how evenly and how finely she chops her vegetables for a salad. My American sensibility leads me astray here - forever in a hurry, I just want to make my vegetables smaller - I move quickly to cut my salads in a large, chunky dice. No, no, no, my mother scolds me, Are you serving this salad with a knife and fork? she laughs. So I go over my work, cutting more finely, mincing more carefully, until my salad is just as delicate as hers. Our lettuce-free salads are cut so finely that you could eat them with a spoon.
Another distinctive of these salads is that they always include herbs, usually the refreshing combination of mint and parsley. No bottled dressings here, of course. Instead of a heavy dressing, these salads are dressed simply with lemon and olive oil, poured right over top of the salad at the last minute and stirred in. The combination of the fresh herbs and the olive oil and lemon juice makes these salads light and fresh, and an excellent counterpoint for the often heavier stews and rice and meats of Palestinian cuisine.
In fact, these salads, which are served with every meal, are almost like a condiment. Since they are finely chopped, these salads can be scooped up with piece of Arabic bread, or even allowed to mingle a little with the rest of the foods on the plate. They are a bright splash against the rice-yogurt-cooked vegetables-and-meat that Arabic food really is.
For more formal meals, or at restaurants, you can expect a mezze course, or a collection of small plates of salads, dips and pickled vegetables. The spread is stunning - the colors and flavors of such a variety of little salads is something to remember.
The Basic Cucumber-Tomato Salad
This tomato-cucumber salad is the basic salad served in the Middle East. If your dinner comes with salad, this is what you will get. If your mother tells you to go to the kitchen and make salad, this is what she means.
The reason this salad is considered so basic is that tomatoes and cucumbers are available almost year-round in Palestine, and these vegetables are abundant, delicious, and cheap. The cucumbers that I grew up with are different than your basic garden cucumbers that you can grow or buy in most of the West. They are only four to five inches long, very smooth and thin-skinned, with small seeds. You can find them in other countries, and they might be labeled Persian cucumbers. If you can't find them, you can substitute the long English cucumbers, since they have a similar flavor and have thin skins. You can also use regular cucumbers, seeded and peeled, but the flavor is a little different.
And my, how I love those little cucumbers from home. When I went away to America for college, and had to live on Midwestern cafeteria food, I missed my cucumbers from home. I remember coming back home at Christmas and sitting in on the living room couch late one night while I was recovering from jetlag, with a massive bowl of cucumbers. I ate several pounds of cucumbers that night. I ate them until I couldn't eat one more and I don't think anything has ever tasted so good to me in all of my life.
This recipe is very simple, really, barely more than a list of ingredients. You want to have about equal amounts of cucumber and tomato. Add a little onion, mint or parsley, if you have it. If you don't, it will still be delicious. Wait to add the dressing and the salt until you serve it, because the salt will draw out the liquids and turn it a little soupy if you add it too early. But the soupiness of this salad is part of its appeal, or so we think. Just use a little bread to sop it up.
Middle Eastern Cucumber-Tomato Salad
2 small cucumbers, diced finely
2 tomatoes, diced finely
2 tbsp. onion, minced
2 tbsp. parsley, minced
2 tbsp. mint, minced
Drizzle of good quality extra virgin olive oil
Squeeze of fresh lemon
Sprinkle of sea salt
Stir to combine and serve.
*Cucumber-Tomato Salad with Tahini-Lemon Dressing
Shared on: Real Food Wednesday, Thank Your Body Thursday, Tasty Traditions, Fight Back Friday.