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This Cava-inspired salad bowl boasts spicy feta and a date vinaigrette

By Joe Yonan Washington Post

I have a salad fantasy, and it goes something like this: I open my fridge and am greeted by so many prepped ingredients, cooked and raw, that I can treat my kitchen like a fast-casual restaurant. I’ll pick out my base greens, the toppings, crunchy bits and dressing, ask myself whether I want bread with that, and sit down to a fresh meal that’s exactly what I want to eat at that moment.

I have two businesses to blame for this idea, both of them born in the D.C. area: Cava and Sweetgreen. I’ve been a longtime customer at both, but these days I tend to gravitate to Cava, perhaps because of my genetic predilection for Middle Eastern flavors and perhaps because it’s one of the few places that’s just as beloved by my husband and teenage son. I’m not alone: Yelp recently named Cava, which now has more than 300 locations in 25 states (plus D.C.), the nation’s fastest-growing brand.

My fantasy hasn’t progressed to reality because I’m not nearly that organized, and nobody but the professionals would be able to keep that many ingredients fresh and ready for assembly at a moment’s notice. “I just try to keep one box of spinach from turning in my fridge before I use it,” Ted Xenohristos, one of Cava’s founders, told me in a phone interview. “If it’s real food and it’s fresh, it’s going to turn and turn quickly.”

What has always impressed me the most about Cava is that, unlike at some other fast-casual concepts, it seems virtually impossible to put together a bowl with flavors that don’t complement one another. That’s partly out of design, as Xenohristos said, and partly because of the very nature of the mezze that inspired the first iteration of the brand when it opened in Maryland almost 15 years ago. “This is how we ate in Greece,” he said. “Like, you take a bunch of separate things and put them together, and they’re all delicious. On their own they’re very simple.”

I asked Xenohristos if anyone in the company had ever tried to figure out just how many possible combinations all the Cava bases, proteins, toppings, crunchy bits and dressings would exponentially add up to. I expected him to say no, or name a number in the thousands, and I almost dropped the phone when he said the answer was yes - 17.6 billion. “We’ve actually spent a good amount of time trying to see if we could come up with a combination that doesn’t work,” he said. “I’m biased, of course, but we haven’t.”

When I set out to develop a recipe as an homage to Cava, I knew I wanted to include my interpretations of three of my favorite elements: the jalapeño-feta dip they brand as Crazy Feta (and sell in stores); the balsamic-date vinaigrette (my husband’s favorite); and the fried pita chips, which are downright delectable in their combination of crispy edges and soft interior.

The feta has been part of Cava’s identity from the get-go. Xenohristos told me team members were inspired by a traditional Greek spread, tirokafteri, that uses a type of red pepper you can’t find in America. So when fellow co-founder and chef Dimitri Moshovitis started working on a version for the first restaurant, he tried using jalapeños, cooking them slowly with onions and olive oil before stirring it all into crumbled feta. As Moshovitis says in a Facebook video, “We tasted it, and one of my cooks said, ‘That’s crazy,’ and I said, ‘There you go, that’s the name.’”

The outstanding pita is custom-made for Cava by the 80-year-old Damascus Bakeries in Brooklyn. (Coincidentally, Xenohristos was driving back to Maryland from a visit to Damascus when I interviewed him.) The big difference is that the Cava pita is a little thicker and chewier than mass-market versions that tend to be more about the air pocket than the texture of the actual bread. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get my hands on the exact pita they use, but if I used “pocketless pita” and didn’t split it before the cooking, I’d get a lot closer to the ideal.

The crowning touch on the salad, though - isn’t this always the case? - is the dressing. Since it debuted in 2022, the balsamic-date vinaigrette has been my husband’s obsession. So I knew any Cava homage I served him had to include it. At first I was a little stumped, because I really couldn’t taste (or see) balsamic vinegar in the sweet-tart dressing, which is golden with dark red flecks. Then I saw a TikTok from the company in which they described making it - with white balsamic. They didn’t give proportions, but I used my instincts and winged it.

My husband’s love for the vinaigrette is driven in no small part by the fact that it’s available seasonally rather than year-round. (It’s that whole absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder phenomenon.) When I told him I had interviewed one of the company’s founders, he said, “Did you tell him they need to make that dressing a permanent menu item?” I didn’t, but I didn’t have to. As Xenohristos told me, every time it comes out of rotation, they hear complaints, so they’re preparing to announce that starting this summer, it’s not going anywhere.

I simplified all these elements so that a home cook could pull off making a Cava-inspired salad for four people in about 45 minutes. The jalapeño and shallot that go into the feta get roasted in one pan while pita wedges and spiced chickpeas get roasted in another (No time for frying!). The dressing comes together quickly with the help of an immersion blender, while the feta mixture is mashed with a fork. The only other requirement is a little knife work to slice up some cabbage and olives, halve cherry tomatoes, cube cucumbers. If you don’t want to make your own, pickled onions can come straight from a jar.

Then it’s all about the assembly. Sure, you could toss everything together the way you do any old salad. But in the spirit of Cava, I like to start with the greens, then add distinct mounds of everything else, tucking the pita wedges into the side of the bowl before drizzling on the dressing.

Will the fact that I can make this at home keep me or my husband from going to Cava? Of course not. It’s true that my husband wants me to never make any other dressing at home now. But this salad represents just one combination, and by my calculations, that leaves 17,599,999,999 to go.

- - -

Cava-Style Salad Bowl With Spicy Feta

This green salad, inspired by the Mediterranean fast-casual chain Cava, features a take on their “crazy feta” dip, balsamic date vinaigrette and fried pita wedges. It gets protein from spiced chickpeas, crunch from cabbage, lettuce and cucumber, and tartness from kalamata olives and pickled onions.

For the most efficient work, blend the vinaigrette and/or chop the remaining salad ingredients while the beans, pita, shallot and jalapeño are roasting. You may have slightly more vinaigrette than you need for this recipe, but you can use it on any other salad or vegetables you’d like.

4 servings (makes about 8 cups)

Total time: 45 minutes

Substitutions: To make it vegan >> use vegan feta, such as Violife brand. White balsamic vinegar >> white wine vinegar, sherry vinegar, champagne vinegar. Chickpeas >> Cannellini or other white beans, black lentils. Toppings >> Mix and match your favorite vegetables (fresh and/or leftover) and legumes. In true Cava spirit, you could add or swap in black lentils and/or grains, plus scoops of hummus, tzatziki, harissa and/or baba ghanouj. Gluten-free? >> Use gluten-free pita or omit it.

Make ahead: The jalapeño feta dip and the balsamic date vinaigrette can be made and refrigerated for up to 4 days before using in the salad.

Storage: Refrigerate the leftover dip and vinaigrette separately from the rest of the leftover salad ingredients for up to 4 days, and leftover pita wedges at room temperature for up to 3 days.


For the balsamic date vinaigrette:

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar (see Substitutions)

2 pitted Medjool dates, chopped

1 tablespoon water, plus more as needed

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/4 teaspoon fine salt, plus more to taste

For the toppings and dip:

1 small pita (preferably pocketless and as fresh as possible), cut into 8 wedges

One (15-ounce) can no-salt-added chickpeas, drained, rinsed and patted dry (see Substitutions)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus more for greasing the pan

1/4 teaspoon fine salt, plus more to taste

1 tablespoon za’atar or ground sumac

1 jalapeño pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into chunks

1 shallot, cut into chunks

3 ounces feta, drained if necessary and crumbled (see Substitutions)

For assembly:

6 cups (8 ounces) mixed salad greens, preferably at least part romaine lettuce

1 cup thinly sliced red cabbage

2 mini cucumbers, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

8 large cherry tomatoes or grape tomatoes, quartered

1/2 cup kalamata olives, pitted and sliced

1/4 cup pickled red onions (optional)


Make the vinaigrette: In a mini food processor, or using an immersion blender and tall cup, blend the oil, vinegar, dates, water, mustard and salt until smooth. Add more water if needed to thin out the dressing to a drizzle-able consistency. Taste, and season with more salt if needed. You should have about 2/3 cup.

Make the toppings and dip: Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 450 degrees.

In a bowl, toss the pita wedges and chickpeas with 1 tablespoon of the oil and the salt until thoroughly coated. Pluck out the pita wedges and transfer them to a large sheet pan, keeping them to one side. Add the za’atar or sumac to the chickpeas in the bowl, toss to combine and transfer to the other side of the sheet pan, spreading them out in one layer.

Lightly oil a second, small sheet pan or ovenproof dish, and spread out the jalapeño and shallot chunks in one layer on it.

Transfer both sheet pans to the oven and roast for 8 to 12 minutes, or until the pita is lightly golden brown, the chickpeas look dry, and the jalapeño and shallot have softened. Keep a close eye on the roasting, as the pita, chickpeas and jalapeño may take slightly different times to finish. Remove from the oven as they are ready and let the pita and chickpeas cool to room temperature on the pan, about 15 minutes. Transfer the jalapeño and shallot to a cutting board.

Finely chop the jalapeño and shallot, then transfer to a small bowl. Add the feta and the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil and, using a fork, thoroughly mash together until creamy but not completely smooth. You should have about 1/2 cup.

Assemble the salad: Divide the greens among four shallow bowls. Top with the chickpeas, cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives and pickled onions, if using. Scoop 2 tablespoons of the jalapeño-feta dip onto each salad, drizzle with the vinaigrette, and serve with the pita wedges.

Nutritional information per serving (2 cups salad, plus 2 tablespoons each feta dip and vinaigrette and 2 pita wedges): 472 calories, 28 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 45 g carbohydrates, 865 mg sodium, 19 mg cholesterol, 11 g protein, 7 g fiber, 12 g sugar.

This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.

From Food and Dining editor Joe Yonan.