Holiday Series: Thank the Host

I plan on posting gift guides, holiday decorating tips, and festive recipes in the next few weeks (’tis the season and all…) but before we tuck into presents and fun, let’s not forget the hosts who put everything together. If you’ve ever hosted a large gathering, then you know every bit counts–whether it’s the people who stay to help clean, pitch in on the cooking, or come early to help set up–any and all help makes a world of difference.
This holiday season, however, I hope to go beyond helping in the cleaning and cooking realm, and make sure every host I encounter knows how much I appreciate their effort with a little token of my gratitude. Holiday Series: Thank the Host
As I think about a hostess present, I consider several things. Is this a family member or friend? Do I know their hobbies, tastes, and interests? Is this my first time at their home? All of these factors collide and provide insight as to what might make an perfect present. Nonetheless, it should ideally be something the host would not normally buy for themselves (perhaps it seems too frivolous a lá a Jo Malone candle) but fits their tastes to the extent of your knowledge. If I know someone who loves cheese, or simply entertains a ton, a fancy cheese plate and/or knives would make a meaningful and useful gift they’re sure to remember. Cool and eclectic tokens of gratitude, like rose gold playing cards, will certainly stand out from the pack with a hint of luxury and cool. Fun, festive barware always works for someone who entertains–from fun glasses to unique coasters, and beyond to copper pieces. If all else fails, finding food items that are part decadent, part interesting, is always appreciated.

There’s something for everyone out there. As you brave the cold and crowds, may your holidays be full of fun and love this year, and may your hosts always know the bounds of your gratitude!

Tea Talk: Everything you think you don’t need to know (but you do)

I’ve always enjoyed high tea more than a regular cup at home. At first read, that isn’t a particularly surprising statement. High tea means picking a pot of your own tea from dozens of exotic choices. That special tea is then served to you in the prettiest china (usually in an equally beautiful venue). High tea is also comes with an array of aesthetically-and-palate-pleasing sandwiches, petite pastries, and perfect scones (with clotted cream and jams). The combination of food, tea, and finery makes the experience an entirely civilized way to spend an afternoon.

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high tea time at the Rittenhouse

                                       Cheesing for high tea, and all the trimmings, at the Rittenhouse Hotel, Philadelphia

However, tea is so much more than a special occasion outing or a cup bland sympathy when you’re feeling under the weather. A little knowledge can help replicate the decadence of high tea at home or on the go, boiled down to the basics: the tea itself.

Tea tradition spans cultures, continents, and centuries: ranging from the Shang dynasty in the third century to modern day drinkers worldwide. From China to Portugal, Great Britain to India, tea remains a stalwart standby for medicinal uses and social gatherings alike.

Tea Travels

Tea originated, unsurprisingly, in China as a medicinal drink. Portugese priests and merchants were introduced to the beverage in the 16th century while on trading trips and missionaries. After its introduction to Europe, tea soared to popularity in Britain by the 17th century. As the British Empire began to encircle the globe, tea became part of colonization. The Brits introduced tea into India while colonizing the country, and the product eventually gained converts throughout Persia and the Middle East via the Silk Road. The combination of trade and colonization brought tea to the world as a whole, with each culture adapting and engaging with the beverage in a unique way. The result is an impressive variety of tea cultures, specific to each population that reflects its peoples’ history and customs.

Tea Science

Tea, from plant to drink, is a long process. It takes about three years for a tea plant to mature enough to harvest. The best quality tea plants are cultivated at high elevations because studies show the leaves acquire a better flavor while grown at a slower pace. There are, naturally, many strains of plants grown for different teas, but the size of the leaf is the basic criterion for classification (small, medium, and large). After the leaves are picked, they are wilted and oxidized or immediately dried. An enzymatic oxidation caused by the plant’s enzymes makes the tea darker in color. This process is halted at a particular stage (depending on what tea) by heating the leaves to deactivate the enzymes.

Nearly all tea (in bags and loose leaf tea) is a blend of some type. Teas are mixed with other teas to obtain a better taste and also, a higher price.

There’s more to tea than just taste though, and there is a reason tea’s history began with medicinal intent. Tea contains catechins, or Flavan-3-ols. Catechins reduce the risk of stroke, heart failure, cancer, and diabetes. Catechins combined with habitual exercise also delay some forms of aging, reduce cancerous biomarkers, keep arteries flexible, increase small vesssel circulation, and reduce blood pressure. Additionally, tea contains vitamin, flavonoids and caffeine. Ample evidence suggests that green and black teas protect against cancer and help manage weight by boosting metabolic rates.

Green and white teas have the highest concentration of catechins thanks to their particular oxidative preparations. Tea also contains the amino acid L-theanine, which modulates caffeine’s psychoactive effects and creates the “umami” taste many associate with tea.

Healthful Tea Options: 

There’s already plenty of evidence that states black and green teas are exceptionally good for you (and great for cutting down the coffee drinking…) but there are more than just the basics when it comes to picking a healthy tea option. Just like reaching into a medicine cabinet to find the right fix for a head or stomach ache, knowing which tea does what can help relieve some common problems.

  • Peppermint tea: relieves bloating, muscle spasms, and nausea. Not ideal for people suffering from heartburn.
  • Ginger tea: a digestive aid proven to curb nausea, vomitting, or upset stomach due to motion sickness. Boost any tea by adding a piece of simmered ginger (on the stove for 10 minutes or so to soften) to your strainer after brewing.
  • Chamomile tea: a calming and sedative tea that is helpful for insomnia and post-meal digestion. This tea also helps with coughs, bronchitis, a cold, and fevers.
  • Rooibos tea: high in vitamin C and minerals, it can help with aging and is super high in antioxidants. As an added bonus, it helps with common skin concerns.
  • Rosehip tea: rosehips are one of the best plant sources of vitamin C making this tea great for your immune system, skin, and overall tissue health.
  • White tea: the least processed tea, named for the fine white fuzz present on the young tea leaf buds when picked, it has a similar, if not greater, antioxidant content as green tea making it a good option for overall health.
  • Oolong Tea: Similar to black tea but with a richer taste thanks to a shorter fermentation period, it may aid in weight loss and increasing metabolic rates.

Making Tea

There are six basic types of tea: white, yellow, green, oolong, black, and post-fermented. Regardless of what type you choose to brew, realize that you’re indulging in the second-most consumed beverage on Earth, after water.

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The color variation is a result of different fermentation processes. From left to right: green, yellow, oolong, and black.

At first glance, you might think that brewing tea is just a simple process of adding hot water to tea, waiting, and adding any sweetners. But like anything else in life, anything worth doing is worth doing right.

Behold: tea brewing beyond the basics

The strength of tea should be varied by changing the amount of tea leaves used, not by changing the steeping time. The amount of tea, the temperature, and the steep time vary from tea to tea. Teas that have little or no oxidation period, like green and white teas, are best brewed at lower temperatures while teas with longer oxidation periods should be brewed at higher temps. The higher tempreatures are required to extract the large, complex, and flavorful phenolic molecules found in fermented tea. Boiling also reduces the dissolved oxygen content of water which reacts with phenolic molecules to turn them brown and reduce the potency of antioxidants.

Type                     Water Temperature                     Steep Time

White Tea              65-70°C 149-158°F                      1-2 min

Yellow Tea             70-75°C/158-167°F                      1-2 min

Green Tea             75-80°C/167-176°F                       1-2min

Oolong tea             80-85°C/176-185°F                       2-3 min

Black Tea               99°C/210°F                                   2-3 min

Pu’er Tea                95-100°C/203-212°F                     Any

After you’ve brewed your tea, according to the directions, there are options for what you might add to enhance the flavor and/or health benefits of your tea.

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Additives

Different cultures add different things to their tea.  For example,adding milk to tea started in Europe around 1680 and some cultures, where dairy products are consumed, still add milk to their tea today.

  • The Indian masala chai and some British blends suggest adding milk. These are hearty black teas that can still be tasted clearly though the milk, which is added to neutralize any remaining tannins and reduce the acidity.
    • Some insist that milk needs to be added after brewing the tea, so that the correct temperature is maintained to sufficiently steep the leaves and dissolve the sugar (if using) as well.
    • Fun fact: Historically, the order of tea-preparation was indicative of class because only the wealthy could afford high-quality porcelain that would be able to survive the high heat of brewing tea without milk to reduce the temperature.
  • Some teas in Italy, Russia, Poland, and Hungary, are served with lemon juice

Tea cultures globally are more creative than just lemon juice and milk though…you can and should consider adding the following:

  • Chinese jasmine tea includes jasmine oil and/or flowers.
  • Indian masala includes spices like star anise, ginger, green cardamom pods, cinnamon, fennel, nutmeg and cloves.
  • Sometimes chilli, coriander and rose petals are included.
  • The British standard, Earl Grey, includes bergamot oil to achieve its taste.
  • In eastern India, lemon tea is immensely popular and is simply lemon juice, hot water and sugar. Masala lemon tea is cumin, seed powder, lemon juice, black salt, and sugar creating a tangy and slightly spicy taste.
  • Adding ginger when brewing tea is a popular technique in Sri Lanka, where cinnamon is also added to sweeten the aroma.
  • The options are essentially limitless, with additives like sugar, liquid or solid honey, agave nectar, fruit jams, mint, herbs, and spices. Additionally, some alcohols are added to tea including whisky, brandy, and apertifs.
  • Complicating matters further, high-altitude pouring is a practice from North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, and Libya) where pouring from different heights can result in different degrees of aeration and thus different flavors. More likely though, this technique cools the beverage so it can be immediately consumed.

The Great Debate: Bag vs. Loose

Up until recently, tea was always loose. It wasn’t until the 20th century that tea leaves came packed into small envelopes. This style of manufacturing/brewing became extremely popular during WWII, when rationing tea was made easier by the use of tea bags. The ease and convenience  makes bagged tea consistently popular today.

However, there are significant drawbacks that come with convenience, as is often the case.

  • The tea used in bags is usually “fannings” or the dust of tea: the waste product produced from sorting the higher-quality loose leaf tea. However, some high-quality specialty teas are available in bag form.
  • Tea aficionados insist that tea bags provide an inferior taste and experience. The paper from the bag may also be tasted, detracting the tea’s own flavor.
  • Dried tea loses its flavor quickly when exposed to air. Since most bagged teas contain leaves broken into smaller pieces, there’s a greater surface area-to-volume ratio on the leaves which means more exposure to air and staler tea.
  • Conversely, loose leaf tea is almost always left in larger pieces, if not entirely intact.
  • Breaking up the leaves for bags extracts and removes flavored oils.
  • The small size of the bag doesn’t allow the leaves to diffuse and steep properly because the tea can’t expand during the brewing process.

Verdict: Loose leaf tea is what brings the decadence of high tea home, and with a few adjustments, can be as easy as using bagged tea.

Now that I’ve sufficiently scratched the surface of tea’s history, production, and preparation, it’s high time to talk accessories and purchasing.

Loose leaf tea is widely available (perks of being the #2 beverage worldwide). If you’re starting the hunt for it though, larger companies like the Republic of Tea and Teavana offer good loose leaf varieties internationally. For a more personal, informative, special, and quaint experience though, seek out smaller and independently owned stores near you.

Tea Time!
                         

As you make the upgrade from bagged to loose leaf, you’ll need a strainer to effectively brew all those loose leaves of tea! The choices above range from whimsy (a literal leaf, a robot, a mini tea-pot, and a shark fin) to practical: the floatea and the mesh travel one. I own both the floatea and mesh options because they make it easy to take tea on the go! Additionally….teapots and cups come in a never-ending supply of shapes, styles, colors, prints, sizes, and materials!

So enjoy the stretches between high tea with your own loose leaf tea at home, on the road, or at work. The best cup of tea still tastes amazing regardless what cup you use and it still does the body good.

Introducing Bentley

A pawminent part of my life was briefly hinted at in an earlier post. After seeing that his picture was posted, my four-legged friend informed me that it was rather rude of me not to make proper introductions. So to appease his sensibilities, and to share the joy that he brings to everyone he meets, it seems long overdue that I introduce Bentley.

To sweeten my apology to him, for not making those proper introductions, I decided he needed a little something to remind him how much he’s adored. Big chain pet-stores are great options, but this particular occasion warranted something a little more special, and it was definitely worth the effort.

If there’s a special someone in your life, and you’re looking to really impress them, you should give doggy style a try!

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Inside, the store is full of everything your dog (or cat, if you’re into that) could ever want or need and then some…

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IMG_1408Including an epic wall of toys….

And a huge array of special occasion treats that you should definitely label as being ‘for the dog’ because they might be mistaken for people treats…

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After much debating, it seemed only right to go big…so a large, super-tough, pterodactyl toy was purchased for the four-legged mister.

I rushed home to show him his pressie and he was waiting eagerly to see what exactly mom had procured to apologize for neglecting to introduce him earlier….

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and it was love at first sight…or bite….

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Bentley romped for a while before settling down to thank me properly, and remind me that a photo shoot was still in order. How could I say no?

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In case you couldn’t tell, Bentley is right at home in front of a camera. This isn’t news though, all his life my big guy has been quite the camera hog! I can’t resist sharing some of his cutest moments….

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Posing for the camera and for ME Photography

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Most likely posing for a treat…

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The day we brought him home….150730_3200233412470_1638048201_n 603832_10200112646526655_1184609543_n 525553_3204019707125_393709137_n 380318_3204068548346_418462492_n

So you can appreciate his growth in the first few weeks…needless to say I won’t be carrying him again any time soon.

Growth

So now that my dearest canine friend has been appeased, he informed me that he’s very happy you can all now appreciate his cuteness, and suggests you pick up anything at Doggy Style for your friends, to remind them how much you appreciate their unconditional love!

Also, puppies running:

Get Cooking

As a product of my generation, it’s safe to assume that I am dependent on the internet for a lot of information. There is just no substitute for the google machine. Despite the awesome powers of the world wide web, sometimes you really can’t beat the feel and experience of a good, old-fashioned, paper-and-ink, tangible, book. This applies to the heaping piles of  books I’ve read and enjoyed over the years and refuse to get rid of–our movers can testify to the truth in that statement. However, everyone has different taste in literature, so I’m not sure it’s my place to dictate what novels or biographies you should delve into and add to your shelves. Conveniently though, we all do have tastebuds, which means we can all enjoy a good cookbook or twelve. Get Cooking
Cookbooks make a great addition to your recipe repertoire, as well as to stylish bookshelves, counter-tops, and coffee tables everywhere. I picked the books shown above based on certain criteria:
  1. Accessibility: By this I mean you have a fighting chance of finding the ingredients near you. This seems like a low bar to set the standard for cookbooks, but check out The French Laundry Cookbook for a head-scratching experience. Also, the skill-level required to make these recipes is not unrealistic.
  2. Deliciousness: All the books listed offer truly epic recipes on a scale of one to omnomnomnomnomnomnom.
  3. Photography: A good cookbook needs to have pretty pictures, even if you can’t replicate the product perfectly, it’s inspiring to see how beautiful food can look!
  4. Informative: You can learn a lot from these cookbooks. Jason Vale is the master of juices and offers a ton of advice regarding nutrition and overall wellness, while Jose Garces gives a history of Spanish cuisine as well as meal planning advice to appreciate the flavors of various Spanish cultures.
I hope you invest in some of these books, I know I love Garces’s recipe for yuca bread and can’t wait to make all the juice recipes from Vale’s book. Not to mention all the desserts in the Bouchon bakery cookbook! So in the spirit of learning and eating, pick up a book and page through until you land on a picture of something truly wonderful looking, and get cooking!
P.S. Not everything you read on the internet (or in books, admittedly) is true (SURPRISE!), but at least you have a fighting chance of honest writing with cookbooks. An editor, or two, did have to page through those recipes before publication. Plus, let’s be honest, there is no such guarantee with Pinterest recipes.

Let’s Eat: Extravagantly

I think a (large) morsel of food this extravagant deserves a story and sharing so without any distraction…IMG_1387

There once was a girl who wandered the vast world wide web, seeking answers to the question–what shall I make for our dinner party dessert? Cupcakes were a nice bite but awfully trite…cookies were too casual and brownies were old news, so a cake it had to be…

After searching and sighing in dismay, she came upon a wondrous cake…a truly magnificent looking beauty. “That’s the one!” Said she. A tuxedo cake done up in true black and white, looking strikingly handsome and truly remarkable. IMG_1388

Peering over to investigate the chosen one, her guy said “No! don’t do it! It’s too complicated looking–you’ll be stressed, everything will be a mess, it’s not worth it! Save yourself” (maybe I’m embellishing…)

“Nonsense!” She said, “It’s beautiful and glorious and a sure crowd pleaser, with time and patience it’ll go off without a hitch.” And so the recipe became reality and there was much planning, baking, frosting, ganache-ing, and then clapping when it was presented with much fuss and festivity…and then much eating and more groaning from the cake-eaters.

Here is the recipe that started this extravagant affair. However, I was not impressed with the chocolate cake recipe so I went to my go-to chocolate cake recipe and was much  happier with the results. Her recipe for the vanilla layers is easy and comes out very nicely though!

Instead of the raspberry white chocolate frosting (I associate white chocolate with crimes against humanity, if we’re being honest) I made the simplest vanilla buttercream recipe, which you can double or triple as your heart desires.

  • Beat 1 cup of soft, room-temperature butter until creamy and smooth.
  • Gradually add 3 cups confectioners sugar, until well incorporated.
  • Add 2 teaspoons vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste (my favorite!) and 1-2 tablespoons cream or milk to soften the mixture
  • When smooth and well mixed, slap it on your cake (or pipe it) with a butter knife or frosting knife.

Tips for Tuxedo Cake:

  • Plan–I made the cakes a day in advance so I could freeze them overnight (wrapped in plastic wrap, in a gallon zip-loc bag)
  • Let the chocolate cakes barely  thaw 5-6 minutes before slicing them in half horizontally, they get harder to work with faster.
  • I froze the cake inbetween doing the first four layers (frosting filling, raspberry filling alternating) and the last four, just to keep everything nice and chilly. I also was very deliberate about freezing it after the crumb coat, the first frosting coat, and after the final one that I smoothed out. I think it helps make the cake more stable as you manipulate it.
  • As always, be very careful when making ganache because it’s liable to break (as the recipe creator noted from her own experience). I find that being exceedingly gentle as you mix, waiting 3-4 minutes for the hot cream to melt the chocolate, and working to make sure very little air gets incorporated, is a sure way to keep your ganache smooth.

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Her recipe gets slightly confusing when talking about slicing the cake when cold but serving at room temperature. I found that we had no trouble at all slicing the cake at room temperature right before serving. I poured the ganache over the cake about 6 hours before we served and there was no trouble at all! Plus, we don’t even have a cake stand or serving knife here so you know it can’t be that hard.

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This cake was an absolute crowd pleaser– there was a chorous of delighted eating commentary and praise. If an occasion arises where you want to make a real show stopper, you can never go wrong with a classic tux! It’s almost too pretty to eat…almost.

So in conclusion, they lived happily ever after with full tummies and sugar rushes. The end!

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Let’s Eat: Dumplings

Last night I decided to mix things up and try some new recipes, and I’m very pleased to say that all of them were a rousing success. I made korean beef and shrimp dumplings. While the beef was a crowd favorite (given the fact that this crowd consisted of guys, no surprise there),  the shrimp dumplings seemed to earn a place permanently in everyone’s heart. I’m particularly fond of them because they were deceptively easy, leaving everyone else  impressed with the results while I exerted minimal effort in constructing them. In the spirit of sharing, it seems only fair to spill the recipe so everyone else can enjoy them too!

Shrimp (and other) Dumplings 

You’ll Need:

  • Wonton wrappers (available in the freezer aisle at most grocers)
  • 1.5 lbs Shrimp peeled, deveined, and chopped
  • 1.5 cups, shredded green cabbage
  • 4-5 scallions, finely diced
  • Scant handful of Mushrooms, finely chopped
  • Ginger root, about half an inch, peeled (use a spoon) and finely grated
  • 1 Teaspoon mirin
  • 1 Teaspoon soy sauce
  • 1 Teaspoon oil (sesame, olive, etc.)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

To make:

  1. Combine all ingredients (except wonton wrappers) in a bowl and mix well
  2. Set out a bowl of warm water and clear a clean, dry workspace
  3. Cover a cookie sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil, and a dusting of cornstarch or flour
  4. Lay out your wonton wrapper on the workspace and fill with about a quarter sized dollop of filling20140307-112455.jpg
  5. Wet the edges of the wonton wrapper with water, fold over, and press to seal. Set on cookie sheet. Repeat until you have desired amount of wontons. 20140307-112504.jpg20140307-112514.jpg
  6. Heat up a frying pan with just enough vegetable oil to cover the bottom.
  7. Once the oil in the pan is very hot, place wontons (not touching) in a single layer in the pan and fry until bottom is browned. Flip them and once both sides are brown, removed and set on paper towel lined dish and serve immediately. They’re delicious on their own, with soy sauce or with any asian dipping sauce

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There would have been more pictures, except there was a lot of eating at the time, which left little patience/opportunity for a full photo shoot. Sorry!

However, alternative wonton fillings could include:

  • Crab, cream cheese, garlic, soy sauce
  • All vegetables, add sweet peppers, for example
  • Ground pork, scallions, egg, shrimp, soy sauce, salt and pepper

Instead of frying, you can also bake the filled wontons in the oven at 425 degrees (spray pan with non-stick spray) until lightly browned. Also, you can always make soup with them too: bring broth of your choice to boil over medium heat and add wontons, cook for about 5 minutes and then add other soup ingredients (shrimp, bok choy, you call) and simmer.

In case you can’t already tell, wontons are pretty easy to work with and the results are delicious. I’ve heard you can fill them with sweet fillings too, so stay tuned to see if that experiment ever pans out. In the meantime, happy wontoning and happy Friday!

Let’s Eat: Greek

While I’m enthusiastic about the German food we get to indulge in on a regular basis, sometimes it is nice to mix it up a little. Thankfully, there is a ready supply of different restaurants, cafes, and bars willing to help us out. Of the many options though, Greek is always a safe and delicious bet.  I love mediterranean cuisine so I’m never disappointed. However, last week we just didn’t feel like venturing out, so I decided to bring the Greek food in and make it myself. Since I was  pleasantly surprised with the results, I thought it was only fair to share them with you.

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First, we had cous cous salad. It was healthy, hearty and flavorful. To make your own, the first thing you’ll need is to make the cous cous according to package directions. You can use regular cous cous, pearl cous cous, whole grain cous cous or a mixture of the three. Once all the liquid is absorbed, let it cool. Meanwhile, prep your dressing.

For the dressing I like to mix, two generous tablespoons of plain hummus, the juice of one lemon, olive oil, sea salt and pepper. Set aside.

Lastly, this salad can be a main dish or a side, so anything goes. Some suggestions for what to put in yours are:

  • Cucumbers, peeled and diced
  • Grape tomatoes, cut in half
  • Chic peas, rinsed
  • Golden raisins
  • Pine nuts
  • feta cheese, crumbled
  • asparagus tips
  • kale and spinach, sautéed
  • Roasted squash
  • Roasted red peppers and tomatoes
  • Red onion
  • Flat leaf parsley, chopped
  • Avocado, cubed
  • Bell peppers, diced
  • You can also sneak in some quinoa and chia
  • Top with roasted chicken or salmon leftovers for a hearty and satisfying meal

Add all of your ingredients to the cous cous, drizzle in your dressing, and toss well so everything is thoroughly combined. You can eat it then, slightly warm, or refrigerate it for a few hours until cool.

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Secondly, you’ll need the Tzatziki sauce:

  • 3 cups plain greek yogurt, preferably Fage 0%
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 english cucumber, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1/2 tablespoon salt and fresh cracked black pepper
  • 1-2 tablespoons fresh chopped or dried dill
  • Mix all ingredients together and let chill covered in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours.

Finally, I took some whole wheat pita bread and warmed it up in the oven so it was deliciously chewy and soft. I topped it with leftover shredded spicy chicken from the crockpot,  spinach, and the tzatziki sauce. It was crazy simple and so so so delicious. Next time, if I’m feeling ambitious, I might give this recipe for homemade pita a try.

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While most everything in Germany is deutsch to me, Greek food is an easy opportunity to incorporate some vegetables and complex carbs in our diet…plus the results are delicious. However, it does provoke the need to watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding, so consider yourself warned.