May it Please the Palate: 'My Big Fat Greek Labor Day Family Dinner or, how my mother lost her head'

Every year on Labor Day weekend, my Pennsylvania family descends upon our lake house like a herd of locusts. Or is that a school of locusts? Whatever. They come loudly, like Greeks do. As Nia Vardalos observed in My Big Fat Greek Wedding And my whole family is big and loud. And everybody is in each other's lives and business. All the time! Like, you never just have a minute alone, just to think, 'Cause we're always together, just eating, eating, eating! What else is there, besides eating? Oh yes, there's planning to eat. For weeks prior to Labor Day, email chatter is all about food. Who's bringing this, who's cooking that. Who's shipping a ham to my house the day before. The best way to cook moussaka. And where am I supposed to put all this stuff? Everyone who comes brings a cooler, and that doesn't include the beer. The actual cooking has to be planned carefully. I can't cook with just anyone else in the kitchen. Correction: I can't cook with my sisters. I tell them if I had a cooking show, it would be called, "Get The Hell Out Of My Kitchen," and to take the title personally. Still, they wander in cheerfully, drinks in hand, with unsolicited advice. "It needs more dill. What are you doing?" (Shaking their heads in unison) "That's not Mom's dressing." Every now and then we try to put some order in this chaos. On one family trip, we agreed who would cook which meal. The first night it was my turn, and my mother was scheduled for the next night. But as I was preparing dinner, my mother was right behind me, two bags of groceries in her hand, already taking out a package of shrimp and starting to peel them. "Mom!" I said, "What are you doing? Tonight's my turn to cook - we agreed!" She looked at me, smile-frowned in that peculiar way of hers, and replied, "I lost my head." Then she went back to peeling her shrimp. I've debated about what recipe to leave you with here. There will be many Greek recipes in columns to come - moussaka among them, perhaps. But really, nobody makes moussaka anymore. It's delicious, of course, but it's sort of like swallowing ballast. We want to keep you light on your feet, spry enough to run from me when I chase you the hell out of my kitchen. Greek Horiatiki Salad (village salad) This is my favorite salad in the whole world. It's a salad without lettuce, just tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and of course lots of feta cheese. My Aunt Mary would put a giant plate of this in the middle of the table. We'd finish the salad in no time, and then all dip our slices of packaged white bread into the leftover dressing, right from the common plate. Back in those days, the dressing was made with Mazola. (Olive oil was an imported luxury, perhaps brought back once a year from the old country in smuggled jars.) My version of the horiatiki salad uses the same familiar summer vegetable bounty, with a little more verve. Ingredients: * Firm, ripe tomatoes, cut into wedges * Small, tender cucumbers, peeled and sliced. Before you peel them, slice off each end and rub the cut end into the rest of the cucumber. My mother taught me that made the cucumber sweeter. I have no reason to believe that actually works, but I always do it. Cucumber to tomato ratio roughly 1:1. * Sliced, sweet yellow or red onion. Maybe 1 small onion for every 4 tomatoes/2 cukes. * Feta cheese. I actually love Trader Joe's authentic Greek feta, made with sheep's milk, in brine. Sheep's milk feta has the nicest tang. Use as much as you'd like. * Good Greek Kalamata olives. Go crazy. * Pepperoncini are nice, or some other pepper with a bite, like chopped Hungarian pepper. Optional ingredients include a few good anchovies or rinsed, salt-packed capers for salt kick; wedges of hard-boiled egg; sliced beets (fresh, of course, boiled 'til tender); and/or plain boiled potatoes, diced. Finally, though it's not traditional, some diced avocado, with or without bacon, is just marvelous. Dressing: I just like a simple two or three parts olive oil to one part red wine vinegar, salt and pepper. If you want herbs, a little oregano, fresh basil, chopped dill, or mint gives it some variety (but if you're using avocado or bacon, skip the herbs). Serve this with plenty of good Greek bread, and if you really want to be authentic, make sure you have an assortment of loud Greeks dipping their bread into the serving plate. And what, you may ask, are us Greeks talking about when we're so loud? Depends on the meal. At breakfast, we talk about what we're having for lunch. At lunch, it's what we're having for dinner. And at dinner, we talk about the next family get-together - where we can eat some more. Published: Thu, Sep 15, 2011