Ode to the Cuisine of Israel: Pita Bread

I was able to take an amazing trip to the Holy Land with my husband several years ago–an experience I will never forget.   I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the food, but I was oh, SO WRONG.  Five-star desserts weren’t the norm, aside from this one:

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But, the food was truly outstanding.  I attribute this mainly to the use of local, fresh produce.  People all over the country still buy their produce from local farmers and at local “stands.”  Keep in mind, this was the selection in the dead-winter of January.

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IMG_0914IMG_0925The variety of salads and vegetable preparations was something I have never seen in America.  I have since read in several cookbooks and on numerous food blogs dedicated to this region that no Arab woman was likely to be taken as a bride unless she could prepare eggplant in seven (the number varies depending upon the account) different ways.  I believe it.  I saw vegetables prepared in so many ways I cannot even begin to remember many of them.  I met few I didn’t love.

In fact, our favorite, deceptively simple, staple cabbage salad originated from this trip.  That recipe will have to keep for a winter’s day, however.  Today, we are going to talk about something more traditional to the cuisine of Israel: pita sandwiches.

Flat breads are the staple for cultures with ancient beginnings (think unleavened bread and manna of the Old Testament).  Whether opened up and stuffed, torn into wedges and used as a vehicle for hummus or other dips, or simply folded up into a taco shape with something delicious inside, pitas are delightful.  What child’s interest doesn’t spark when you tell them lunch will be “pocket sandwiches?”

My pita dough uses a sourdough starter, which I know just caused some people to stop reading and click elsewhere, but bear with my while I explain.  More traditional yeast bread methods always used a long soaking time and a natural yeast (sourdough) starter for leavening.  There is some indication that these historic methods actually changed the digestibility of the grains and are therefore healthier for our digestive systems.  I am not saying I’ve found a cure for Celiac or anything (that would be ridiculous, since I am no scientist) only that when I am able, I like to use the old-school method both for assumed health benefits as well as a slower, more traditional experience and final product.  If you’d rather make pita without the sourdough, I have included a second recipe below that omits it.  I am unabashedly partial to the sourdough version.  Once your pitas are done, stuff them with hummus, grilled veggies and more (don’t worry we’ll get into that later in the week).

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Pita Bread – Whole Wheat, Sourdough
Adapted from: http://bintrhodaskitchen.blogspot.com

Yield:  15-20 rounds
4 cups whole wheat flour (can use all white or half white and half wheat)
1 Tbsp Real kosher salt
2 tablespoons honey
2 cups whole milk
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup sourdough starter, freshly fed and bubbly, (freshly fed will give less of a sour taste to the final bread)

To Make Dough:
Mix together 3 cups of flour and salt in a mixing bowl (if kneading by hand) or bowl of a stand mixer.

Add honey, milk, oil and starter. Knead for several minutes and then add the extra flour a little at a time until dough is tacky, not sticky.

Form dough into a round, place in an oiled bowl and cover.  Allow to raise until double in size, about 4-6 hours.

To Form and Bake:
Divide the dough into lemon sized balls and use either a tortilla press or a rolling pin (or a combination of both) to roll them out rather thin, but not too thin or they won’t hold up to stuffing.  Children are ideal helpers during this step.

Place the loaves on a well-floured surface so that they do not stick and cover with a damp towel.  Allow to rest 5-10 minutes while you work on the other rounds.  They won’t rise noticeably.

Preheat either a cast iron skillet or a pizza stone in the oven.  Carefully place rounds onto hot surface and cook until they puff completely, about 2-3 minutes.  Flip and cook 1-2 minutes on the other side.  Repeat with remaining rounds.  Store finished pita in a tortilla warmer to keep warm and soft until you are ready to eat them.

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Pita Bread, Instant Yeast
Adapted from: The Foods of Israel Today by Joan Nathan

1 Tbsp instant yeast
1 ½ cups warm water
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp salt
3 ½ cups all-purpose flour (or a combo of wheat and white), approximately

1. Combine yeast and warm water in bowl of BOSCH mixer. Stir until yeast is dissolved; add olive oil, and salt. With motor on speed 1, add enough flour to form a firm, elastic dough.

2. Form dough into a ball and place in an oiled bowl. Cover with saran wrap and let rise until doubled.

3. Turn dough out onto floured surface and cut into 12 equal pieces. Using your hands, form each section into a ball about the size of a lemon. Cover with a towel and set aside for 5 minutes.

4. Lightly flour the worksurface and roll each ball to a 6-inch disk. The dough will be very elastic, so roll firmly, adding a little more flour as necessary to keep the dough from sticking. Repeat with remaining balls of dough. Cover and let rest 15 minutes

5. Meanwhile, preheat oven with a baking stone (alternately, a baking sheet pan) to 500°, or use a cast iron pan on the stovetop.  Using a peel, transfer 2 rounds to the baking stone or pan and bake 3 minutes. Remove withtongs or spatula and repeat with all remaining rounds.

Feel-Better Mint Herbal Tea

Whether it’s major allergies or the first cold of the season is still to be determined, but I can say with certainty that I’ve felt better other days of my life than I do today.  So, I’m sharing and sipping my Feel Better Mint Herbal Tea.  I hope that the school-year sickies haven’t visited your house yet and that when they do you have some mint herbal tea kicking around to combat the stuffy head.  You will also need some honey (preferably in a darling pot, because that will make anyone feel just the tiniest bit better) and a lemon.  This is great before bed to ease stuffiness and supress a cough.  Did you know that scientists have actually studied the effectiveness of honey as a cough suppressant for people ages one and up?

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Feel Better Mint Herbal Tea
10 oz boiling water
2 mint tea bags (3 if you’d like to serve this cold rather than hot)
1-2 tsp honey
2 tsp lemon juice (can substitute lime juice)

Steep the tea bags in boiling water for 5 minutes.  Squeeze and discard bags.  Stir in honey and lemon juice until honey is completely dissolved.  If serving cold, pour over a cupful of ice.  Sip and feel better soon!

Quick and Easy Dinners: Ham Fried Rice

Fried rice is a quick, crowd-pleaser of a one-dish dinner.  I love it for it’s adaptability as much as its taste.  You can switch the protein out for chicken, shrimp or even tofu (gasp!) and the veggies are whatever you have on hand.  Ideally, it is made with leftover, cooled rice, but I’ve been known to whip up a quick batch of white rice and then fry it into this dinner in under 30 minutes.  None of the hungry people at my house seemed to mind!  Assemble the necessaries and have everything ready to go so that when you begin stir frying you can stir continuously.  (Not pictured are soy sauce and the actual ham.  Do as I say, not as I photograph.  Get everything out before.)IMG_0945

Begin by frying the onions in a wok or large skillet on medium to medium-low heat in some avocado oil (or other oil appropriate for high-heat) for several minutes until translucent.  Add the garlic and turn the heat up to medium-high (if your stove top is lacking in ooomph you may need to use a high-heat setting here).  Stir continuously for 1 minute.  Then add the veggies, reserving any soft ones for last (peppers, zucchini, etc.).  Stir fry for several minutes, adding remaining veggies for the final 30 seconds or so.

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Scoot everything over to the side of the wok and add another tablespoon of oil.  Put the rice right on the new oil and begin stir frying.  Add all sauce ingredients and the chopped ham.

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Meanwhile, with your third and fourth arms, because your other two are busy stirring continually, cook the scrambled eggs.  I like to do this as I would an omelette and then slice it into strips afterwards:

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Serve to hungry people.

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Ham Fried Rice
3 Tbsp avocado oil, divided (or other oil suitable for high-heat)
1 small to medium onion, finely diced
3 large cloves garlic, sliced
3 cups or so veggies, diced or cut into small pieces (peas, carrots, corn, green beans, peppers, zucchini, sugar snap peas and broccoli all work well here, as does one of those bags of mixed veggies from the frozen food section of the grocery store)
4-5 cups cooked rice, white or brown
2 cups cooked ham, diced
3-4 Tbsp soy sauce.  Start with 3 and then taste for seasoning
1 1/2 Tbsp oyster sauce
dash fish sauce
freshly ground pepper to taste
3 0r 4 eggs, beaten.

Cook onions in oil over medium until translucent.  Increase heat to medium/high and add garlic, stirring constantly for 1 minute.  Add vegetables (reserving softer veggies for later) and stir-fry for 3-4 minutes, just until crisp-tender.  Add soft veggies for the last 30 seconds or so.

Scoot everything over in the wok and add another tablespoon of oil.  Place rice on top of new oil and begin to stir fry.  Add ham, soy sauce, oyster sauce, fish sauce, and pepper.  Continue stir frying till everything is well mixed and the ham is warmed through.  Meanwhile, cook the eggs omelette style and then remove to a cutting board.  Slice into strips.

Place rice mix in large serving bowl and top with strips of egg.  Serve with additional soy sauce at the table.

Tropical Peach Smoothie

Monday mornings (or any weekday mornings for that matter) very often call for breakfast through a straw around here.  We are still a little groggy from the rude awakening of the alarm clock, and not moving quickly enough for a leisurely breakfast.  Enter: the smoothie.  IMG_0928

If you do the smoothie right, it is a balanced breakfast that can be consumed quickly, or grabbed for an on-the-go, carpool-driving ma.  I do recommend an unbreakable cup with a lid for the latter occasions:

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The key to a nutrient dense smoothie is a balance between carbs (think fruit and veggies), protein (think yogurt, nuts or nut butter) and fat (think full-fat dairy, coconut oil or some seeds).  If you load your blender with only carbs, you’ll be hungry much sooner.

The trick to a quick-blending, smooth smoothie is layering.  A good, high-powered blender definitely helps too, especially if you’re blending flax or other seeds into your smoothies.  (Note: I do not personally recommend the Ninja brand.  I’m a Vitamix girl myself and would recommend a Blendtec , a Breville or a Cuisinart as alternatives.)

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Add all liquid ingredients to the bottom of the blender first.  Then add the soft solids, like yogurt, nuts and seeds.  Next comes fresh fruit, in this case it’s peaches.  Finally add your frozen ingredients such as frozen fruit or ice cubes.  Now, just blend it up on smoothie setting and you’re set to go.  If your blender doesn’t have a smoothie setting, simply turn it on low for a few seconds and then increase the speed up to high over the next 3-5 seconds.  Blend on high until the desired consistency is reached.  Layering, along with the right balance of soft to solid ingredients, should eliminator the need to stop the blender and scrape down the sides (in most blenders).  Now just add a straw and breakfast is served.  (Note: these straws are the recommended version for smoothies and shakes because they are larger in diameter, but we find the originals work just fine for our needs.)

Tropical Peach Smoothie

1 cup coconut milk beverage (can also use almond milk or dairy milk)
2 cups yogurt (I use full-fat for that nutritional balance)
3 medium peaches, peeled
1 cup mango chunks, frozen
1/2 cup pineapple chunks, frozen

Layer ingredients into your blender in the order listed and blend either on smoothie setting or as described above.  Sip through a straw for the full tropical experience!

Fall Planting and Winter Gardening for Your Zone

Did you need a project for the weekend?  Is “need” really the correct verb for the previous sentence?  Either way, it’s time to get planting in the garden if you want winter and even some spring produce!  The first thing you need to know is your USDA Hardiness Zone.

USDA Map

The map gives you a general idea, but it’s best to visit their site and type in your zip code to find the correct zone.  Once you know that, you’ll also know your winter low temperature range.  Mine is an 8a, so any of you with lower temperature ranges than 10-15° F either need to begin this process earlier (next year, that is) or be prepared to do more frost protection.  We will talk about methods for that in a later post.  You also need to be real about what you can and can’t keep alive given your particular gardening setup.  Even though I may be able to keep a tomato plant alive in my backyard all winter (don’t put it past me, I may try it one day) I will have more success with crops that are less frost sensitive.

Now, here is RULE 1 when it comes to “winter gardening:”  IT’S SUNLIGHT MORE THAN TEMPERATURE THAT DETERMINES SUCCESS.  So, technically, you should all go out and figure out your latitude on a map and then base when you begin your winter plantings on that number.  The further north you are, the earlier you must plant to get the growth necessary before low temperatures set in and light is at a minimum for your area.  Once you’ve reached that point in the calendar year where you feel like the days are significantly shorter than during the summer growing season, your plants will not grow significantly.  The idea is to get the growth taken care of BEFORE this happens so there is something to harvest.

Here is THE BIG SECRET about fall/winter gardening: IN MANY WAYS IT’S EASIER TO GARDEN DURING THE FALL AND WINTER.  The bugs die off (literally), you use less water and there are less weeds.  Everything is a little slower paced and more manageable.  Once I get past the motivation to get it planted, my fall garden is probably my most rewarding of them all, which brings us back to that project you wanted (?) to do this weekend.

Here are some ideas for quick-growing winter crops that most of us can still get in the ground:

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Beets.  We always have a bowl of steaming, buttered beets on our Thanksgiving table.  I absolutely LOVE the tradition of going out and pulling the last of our beets out just before the holiday.  It feels like the perfect way to remember that this has always been a day of gratitude for what we already have .  If you’re thinking your kids won’t like them, trust me when I say that beets grown in the cool weather of fall are like eating sugar.  If they (or you) still aren’t convinced, try explaining that only those people who eat their beets all gone get to have pink-colored pee the next day.  That ought to at least get them listening.  Look for varieties with a shorter “days to harvest” number or those specifically advertised for fall planting.

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Spinach.  Clearly I’m not the only one who enjoys a good spinach salad.  I’ve got some leaf miners who are already feasting on the fall garden, but they’re nothing a little B.t. can’t handle.  (For more on that, read what I had to say here.)  I’d much rather deal with a few miners than eat a pesticide-drenched salad, anyway.  With a good head-start, your spinach will be the rock star of your fall/winter/spring garden.  Spinach planted and kept alive through winter will grow gangbusters the next spring.  The root system is already developed, and it takes off as soon as the temperatures and light even begin suggesting spring.  Plus, you can continue to harvest spinach all winter long in most climates, with little to no frost protection.  Look for varieties that specifically mention “winter” and save those heat tolerant varieties for your later spring plantings.

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Carrots.  One of my children is personally offended if we do not always have carrots growing in our garden.  Even when I lived in Zone 5B with a winter low temperature range of -15 to -10 we kept carrots in the ground and harvested them all winter long.  It was muddy, but worth it.  Again, look for shorter germination to harvest times for fall plantings.

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Quick-growing crops (Herbs, radishes, lettuce).  It’s not too late to get a few more batches of cilantro out of your patch of garden, or to finally get some radishes that aren’t so spicy (the heat adds to their zip).  Choose mixes of lettuce for a quick micro-greens crop before the first frost.

Garlic.  Plant it soon and harvest it during late spring to early summer next year.  I haven’t done this yet because it’s a little too early where I live.

More on how to frost protect during the frozen months will come later on.  For now, get out there and scratch a little soil up and plant some seeds this weekend.  Your winter menu will thank you for it!

How to Propagate Herbs in Water: AKA My Kid’s Next Science Project

We had some accidental science going on in the kitchen windowsill last week.  I cut some basil from the garden for a recipe and ended up with too much.  It was gorgeous, and I didn’t want to waste it, so I put it in a cup in the windowsill with some water figuring I’d use it in the next few days.  One of these cups:

And then I ignored it for at least a week.  I’m honestly not sure  if the fact that the stems were down there in the dark of the red cup was advantageous to the experiment, hence, the science project reference–more on that in a minute.  Last night, I pulled it out wondering how it had not died yet, since I hadn’t even given it additional water, and here is what I found:

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Roots!  It grew real, plant-nourishing roots!  I find this important for home gardeners for several reasons:

  • You can have more of what you already have.  You want three basil plants instead of one?  Go ahead and cut a few, get them to root, and plant them!
  • You can bring plants indoors for the winter without having to dig up dirt from your garden and try to transplant a gigantic plant into a container sized appropriately for indoors.
  • It’s FREE!
  • It’s a fast way to get a plant you already know you like.  Unless, you are out of red cups and have to go to Costco (this might also negate bullet point #3 and make this the most expensive herb you ever bought).
  • It’s EASY!  Make sure your cut is fresh (cut a small part of stem off RIGHT before you put it in the water-this means you’ll likely cut it twice: once outside and once after you bring it in the house to get it in water).  Give it sufficient water, and you’re all set!

A little internet research will divulge that this works with many plants, especially herbs.  So, considering that it’s September and the frost will hit all of us eventually this fall, start thinking about which of your favorite herbs you’d like growing inside this winter.  They’ll be sure to brighten your windowsill and your culinary efforts!

A note on the un-scientific method used here:

I’m planning to convince one of my children to use this as their science fair project this year repeat this little experiment a couple of times changing only one variable per time.  By which I mean that we will pick three or four different herbs from the yard and propagate them all in red cups and then we will make cuttings of those exact same herbs and propagate them in glass jars.  We may also do a third set or a secondary experiment where we add marbles or decorative glass gems because there is some indication in reading about this process that the roots like something down in the bottom of the container to stimulate them.

Here’s the difference a week can make:IMG_0745

The plant on the left was in the red cup for a week and the plant on the right was just cut and placed in water last night.  Happy experimenting!

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Cookbook Review

Do you have this book?   Or perhaps you have the older version, like I do.  Jamie’s Food Revolution one of my favorites and today I’m here to tell you why.  I hate almost nothing more than buying a cookbook that turns out not to be a good fit for me.  I feel bad for not using it, but there it is on the shelf staring back at me with its offerings of Duck Confit and Scallop Ceveche when what I really need is a recipe for Dinner 15 Minutes Ago, if you know what I mean.  Enter one of my culinary heroes, Jamie Oliver.

Jamie Oliver

This book is full and I mean FULL of great recipes from easy salads and sides (that normal people would eat), to quick 15-20 minute meals, to roasted dinner that are all dressed up for Sunday.  It’s hands-down my favorite cookbook for dinners.  I have other favorite books in the baking, bread, and regional categories, but when it comes time to put a dinner on the table that will please everyone, this book is where I always turn.  So, if you’re looking for a few new recipes to add to your rotation, I’d highly recommend this book.  “Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it…”(quick, name that 80’s reference)

Lime-Infused Honeydew

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Honeydew will always remind me of my Grandma.  She was tiny, maybe  5’2″, and petite featured.  She was an Iowa farm wife during most of my dad’s childhood, which means she was amazing in a kitchen.  I remember sitting around as a child while the adults lounged in chairs, after their third gourmet meal of the day, and tried to guess how much weight they’d gained during this visit to her house.  She always quietly smiled and knew to take it as the highest compliment.  She lived a ten-hour drive away from my childhood home, so we saw her only once or twice a year.  Grandma showed her love through food and a kind temper.  She would spend weeks cooking and preparing for house guests.  She was famous for her rolls, but the freezer was full of other goodies too: twice baked potatoes, frozen fruit cups, skiers french toast, pies, and numerous cookies and to keep the grandchildren happy.

I don’t know that I ate honeydew any other time during my childhood.  I remember asking my mom what it was while standing in grandma’s kitchen, and I remember being fascinated by the name: honeydew.  I imagined it sweet and watery, just like the name implied.  I didn’t know it would taste fresh, almost like the first hint of a cool breeze in autumn.  It wasn’t overpowering like a cantaloupe can sometimes be, and it had just the right balance of flavors.  It was a lot like grandma, the perfect mixture of sweet and delicate.  My grandma’s been gone for fifteen years and I feel the sting of regret when I think of the lessons, both culinary and character, I could have learned from such a woman.  So, today’s recipe is simple, in her memory.  I hope I do justice to a fruit that will always remind me of one of the best women I have ever known, both in and out of the kitchen.

Lime-Infused Honeydew
1 medium honeydew melon
1 lime, both zested and juiced

First, halve, seed, and peel your melon.  See photos below for the steps of properly peeling any kind of melon.  Use a big knife.  For those of you who are not comfortable with big knives, start practicing on melons.  It’s the exact way I got comfortable wielding one of those huge chef’s knives around.  My melons in the photos are kinda small, but it’s what we grew, so it’s what I had for photo props.  The process is the same for any melon, even the 3o pound watermelons you want diced up.

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Begin to curve the knife blade along with the curve of the melon as you slice downward:

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Next, dice it up.  But, really, keep your hands out of the way of the knife, OK?  I need a 3rd arm for this photo blogging and somehow the shot below looks like I’m about to slice through my hand (I didn’t).  Do as I say in this case, not as I do, and hold the melon more from the top!  Stop the knife just before you reach the other side, as in the photo.  This will keep the melon intact, rather than sprawling everywhere while you dice:

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Next, ,cut downward in strips the width of dice you desire:

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Finally, cross cut your previous cuts to form the cubes.  You will be left with a small end.  Lay it flat side down on the cutting board and finish the dice:

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Add the zest and juice of one lime:

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Toss to combine, and then allow to sit while you prepare the rest of your meal:

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Eat up:

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Heroes

FullSizeRenderI had a recipe to post today, but it can wait until next week.  I just returned home from the “Hero Day” assembly at my kids’ school.  It’s a wonderful tradition where they sing patriotic songs; honor local law enforcement officers, firemen and first responders; read “Hero Essays” composed by the 5th grade students; and observe a moment of silence while Taps is being played.  It’s intense and I felt very emotional as I sat thinking of not only September 11, 2001, but also of the men and women who put their lives on the line each day to protect the freedoms this country was founded upon.

My friends, there are heroes among us.  There are heroes who have gone before us.  And there is an entire generation of heroes who need us to teach them what freedom is and how to value it.

I’m flying my flag today in all of their honor.

Greek Salad

In our final ode to the tomato, let’s make some quick and tasty Greek Salad!  It’s a beautiful time of year when you can return from the yard with this still life:

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Give that cucumber, peppers and olives a chopping and remove the tomato stems:IMG_0281

Assemble the dressing ingredients:IMG_0286

Season well with salt and freshly ground pepper and then whisk the oil and vinegar together and toss over everything:IMG_0287

Greek Salad
2-3 cups cherry sized tomatoes
1 large cucumber, roughly chopped
2-3 large bell peppers, any color, roughly chopped
1/2 cup crumbled Feta cheese
1/4 cup Kalamata olives, chopped
2 tsp Kosher Real Salt* and freshly ground pepper to taste (if using a finer table salt, use half as much)
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar

Chop all veggies and combine in a bowl.  Top with chopped olives, feta, salt and pepper.  In a liquid measure, add 1/4 cup red wine vinegar and then add the olive oil until you reach the 1/2 cup mark (this is around 1/3 cup).  Whisk oil and vinegar to combine and drizzle over salad.  Toss gently to combine.    Also delicious served inside a pita bread with a little hummus spread inside.

*Not all salt is created equal!  Some salts are more processed than others and that will affect the taste of your dish.  Also, Real Salt is naturally mined and contains minerals.  Read more about it *here*.

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