Or just salad, as it's called in Israel. For years of my childhood I was confounded that Americans seemed to call lettuce-based salad, "salad," even with nary a tomato or cuke in sight. (Israelis call that "lettuce salad.") I was similarly perplexed by pico de gallo being presented as a "relish" and not a salad, when it was clearly the closest North American relation to what I regarded as the Platonic form thereof.
Israeli salad, as it's been dubbed, is an essential accompaniment to any and all meals in Israel. It can be the basis of dinner but also, very much so, breakfast. A scoop next to your hot lunch is standard. If all you have in the house is eggs, cottage cheese, a cucumber and a tomato, you have a square meal and yihiyeh beseder--everything will be okay.
Israeli salad is best made in small quantities and eaten right away. Back in the era when I used my kitchen for book storage, my grandma wrote down for me exactly how she made salad (twice a day), with half a tomato and half a cucumber (the question mark in the recipe is a bit of red onion?, on which see below).
Essentials Elements + Variations
As with most elemental foods, there are differing opinions on what constitutes the ideal form. Everyone agrees that the basis of the salad is tomatoes and cucumbers, in approximately a 1:1 ratio, finely diced into little cubes. The dressing is olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper and that's it, always.
Where the differences come in are with the optional additions. Many people add finely diced red or white onion. Some people add a little diced bell pepper. My grandma always added a few leaves of chopped green lettuce, though this is a less common twist, as are scallions, which my mom liked to add. Some people omit parsley, but don't be those people, okay?
How to pick tomatoes + cucumbers for Israeli salad
For Israeli salad, you want small, flavorful, crunchy Persian cucumbers, not the bland English kind with huge seeds. For years and years these were difficult to find in the US, but now many supermarkets carry them--even my local Costco does, but this might be specific to my heavily Jewish/Israeli/Persian neighborhood.
Now we come to tomatoes. Always err on the side of taste. If all you have locally or in season are giant slicing tomatoes, go with those above imports. If you have a choice, though, I recommend using small to medium-sized tomatoes, such as tomatoes on the vine or Roma. Cherry tomatoes can't be easily sliced and larger tomatoes are messy to dice. Ideally, you want to use the tomatoes while their skins are taught. If they've started to soften, well, they're perfect for shakshuka.
Also, some self-knowledge to hold in your awareness as you pick out tomatoes: there are two kinds of the people--those who think the tomato seeds left at the bottom of the salad are the best part, and those who try to avoid the dank horror of salad juice. Let's just say that if you fall into the latter category, you'll prefer smaller, less voluptuous tomatoes.
How to dice vegetables for Israeli Salad
To get a nice, fine dice on your tomato, cut it in half with a small serrated knife. Place the slice flat-side down on your cutting board and carefully, without too much pressure, cut the tomato into even slices of about 1cm (a bit smaller than ½"). Then, turn the tomato 90 degrees and slice at the same intervals, forming small cubes of tomato. You can discard the stem pieces if you like.
Cukes are low-maintenance beings, amenable to slicing. Slice them in half crosswise, across the middle, then cut them in half again lengthwise. Place the flat side down on the cutting board and slice each cucumber piece into three strips lengthwise. Then, slice width-wise at even intervals.
All that's left to do is dice any additions, squeeze half a lemon over the salad bowl, pour a glug of good-quality olive oil, salt generously and add pepper to your liking, and you're practically sitting in your savta's kitchen, hot Mediterranean breezes wafting in (if also possibly jukim).
Israeli Salad (parve)
- 1 medium-sized tomato
- 1 Persian cucumber
- handful flat-leaf parsley - optional, but recommended
- 1-2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil - the more flavorful, the better
- ½ lemon
- 1 tsp salt - to taste
- several turns black pepper, freshly ground - to taste
- Dice the tomato into small, even cubes of a bit under ½" (or 1 cm).
- Dice the cucumber into the same size cubes as the tomato.
- Finely dice the parsley, if using, as well as any other additions (see notes).
- Dress the salad with freshly-squeezed juice from half a lemon, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Toss to coat all the vegetables, and serve immediately.