Far from being a crudely chopped mess of nondescript
vegetables, a decent "salat yerakot", as it is properly known, is a thing of art and beauty.
People living in Western and Northern Europe will find this difficult to understand, and I daresay some will think that I am being either facetious or pretentious, but the fact of the matter is that vegetables taste, smell and feel completely different in the Middle East. The Israelis are fortunate enough not to need to import much produce, with the result that what there is in the markets is usually relatively fresh; not picked yesterday like in olden times, but not picked unripe, sprayed with chemicals and put in deep refrigeration for 8 months, either. This gives vegetables (and fruit) the time to ripen properly and develop their real taste and aroma. To an Israeli, the average UK supermarket sells vegetable shaped soap, or wax at best... For some bizarre reason, this is particularly true in the case of the cucumber. I have known cucumbers all my life as small green bundles of aromatic freshness, but nowhere in Europe have I seen anything on sale but those water logged, tasteless schlongs of alarming proportions and no culinary value. It's probably something to do with EU regulations, and it stinks.
Anyway. While the crucial ingredients for a good vegetable salad are indeed tomatoes and cucumbers, the red or green pepper has been gaining traction quickly in recent years, as well as sundry other additions such as onions, scallions, carrots and even pickled gherkins (a Russian twist on the original, that). All vegetables must be very fresh, at the height of their ripeness, clean and firm (it is permissible to have slightly overripe tomatoes, but not wrinkly peppers or flaccid cucumbers!).
It is important to have the right tools for the job: the best salad chopping knife is a small plastic-handled article with wicked little jagged teeth. this is both traditional and practical: it is virtually impossible to chop a tomato into the tiny chunks required with a large chef's knife - I've tried it out of technical snobbery and discovered to my shame that the grannies had it right all along. A plastic chopping board is also better than the more fashionable wooden articles, as it does not absorb as many of the juices and is easier to clean.
Probably the most distinctive thing about an Israeli salad is the shape and size of the finished product. All vegetables – even the fiddly tomato – are to be cut into even cubes of no more than .5 of a centimetre along each side. It’s a goal that can prove elusive, and many a squashed tomato and disintegrating pepper have I seen on my path to salad perfection. I can give you all sorts of advice about sharp knives and a firm grip, but the final and sad truth is that you’ll get better with practice. So try to just start off with slightly larger chunks and build your way up to the truly impressive stage where the salad looks almost like it’s liquid, the bits of vegetables are so small – but everything is still crunchy and flavoursome.
The Lebanese season their salad only with lemon juice, and that is a very interesting and refreshing option: but in Israeli homes it is more common to add salt, pepper and olive oil as well, albeit sparingly. A Palestinian friend of mine chops a good handful of fresh mint into it, and parsley is an even more popular herb to include. For myself, a very small bit of lemon juice, olive oil and pepper and a generous amount of salt are my favourite combination. The salt makes the vegetables release their juices, and quite a few people I know will drink those out of the bowl after the salad is eaten, and think it the best part. I just like dunking my bread crusts.
Eat the salad with fresh white bread (smothered in margarine, not butter), scrambled eggs and cottage cheese for a quintessentially Israeli light lunch or supper.