Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Chicken Souvlaki with Tzatziki-- Kalamaki Style

I'm a huge fan of meat on a stick. From Japanese Yakitori to corn dogs at the Virginia State Fair, if you can thread it on a skewer, I'm gonna eat it.

One of my all-time favorite meat treats is Greek souvlaki. Souvlaki is a popular handheld street food found in the many souvlaki shops that dot the landscape of Greece, which are apparently so popular and prolific, they have been rumored to put a McDonald's or two out of business.

Traditional souvlaki, which is a generic term to used to describe skewered or rotisserie meat (think gyro), can be enjoyed wrapped in warm pita bread with onions, tomatoes and a generous dousing of piquant tzatziki (a yogurt sauce accented with fresh garlic, cucumber, lemon and olive oil) or on its own, grilled and skewered (referred to as kalamaki) which is served simply with a piece of bread on the side.

Meats that are commonly used include: lamb, pork, gyro meat, swordfish, beefteki (a ground beef and lamb mixture) or chicken.

Quality Greek or Lebanese olive oil is essential to this dish
However, the best part about souvlaki, other than eating it with tzatziki and olive oil dripping down your arms (it ain't first date food) is that it's super easy to make, merely requiring a few quality ingredients, a handful of skewers and a hot grill.
A cast iron indoor grill works fine, too
The most important takeaway here has to be ingredients. When I make this dish at home, and I often do since grilled souvlaki is just perfect for an evening of outdoor grilling, I use either Lebanese or Greek extra virgin olive oil exclusively (i.e. first pressing only). Generous amounts of olive oil are integral to this dish and many other Mediterranean recipes, so it's worth the investment to buy the good stuff. Same goes for oregano. I use Greek oregano (either dried or fresh) which can be bought in large amounts at any Greek/Mediterranean specialty grocer. As you may or may not know, not all oregano's are the same. In fact, they differ widely, from Mexican oregano to Italian oregano, with Greek oregano most known for its rather pungent almost tongue numbing flavor.

As far as  lemon juice, that goes without saying. Don't even think of using anything other than fresh squeezed lemons for this dish or I will hunt you down and smack you.
Spanakopita, pita and tzatziki will complete this meal
Also, be sure to grill your skewers at medium-high or hotter since much of the appeal of this dish is the nice caramelization of your meat(s). If you find your skewers are starting to burn, simply wrap the ends in tin foil, which should do the trick. 

When serving, if you have the opportunity to whip some some spanakopita or tiropita (Greek cheese pie) this will make your meal all the better. Also, tzatziki (see recipe below) and fresh-from-the-oven pita bread is essential. Quartered tomatoes and onions tossed with a little olive oil and red wine vinegar will round out your at-home Greek fest.

Chicken Souvlaki Kalamaki-Style
Serves 4

This recipe is about as simple as it gets with only a few basic ingredients. As mentioned, it’s very important to use a quality olive oil and real Greek oregano, which is far more flavorful than any of the supermarket stuff.

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil (preferably Greek or Lebanese)
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
One heaping teaspoon dried Greek oregano
1 pound boneless chicken breasts, cubed
Pinch of salt
A couple of grinds of black pepper
Wooden skewers, soaked in water for at least 30 minutes

Mix together olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, salt and pepper in a bowl.  Add chicken and toss well.  Cover and marinate in the refrigerator at least an hour (preferably overnight).  You can also marinate your chicken in a plastic bag if that's easier.

Remove chicken from marinade and thread on skewers.  Lightly oil your grates and preheat a grill to medium-high. Grill skewers until they are lightly charred and cooked all the way through.  Serve with tzatziki and warm pita bread.

Easy Tzatziki
Makes 2 cups

This is excellent served alongside beef, lamb or chicken kabobs or atop a simple piece of grilled fish.  For an easy starter, serve with sliced veggies and quartered pita bread for dipping.

1 medium-sized cucumber, peeled, seeded and finely minced or grated (English cucumber works well)*
2 cups Greek yogurt (preferably Fage brand)
1/4 cup mint, minced
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon cumin
Salt and pepper, to taste
Good quality olive oil, for drizzling

Mix all ingredients well in a medium-sized bowl. Cover and chill until ready to serve.  Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with additional herbs before serving.  Best made a day ahead.

*To avoid a watery tzatziki, sprinkle cucumber pieces generously with salt and let sit for 20 minutes. Then squeeze out as much water as possible. If you choose this method, leave off any additional salt.

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