Go Greek This Grilling Season With Chicken Souvlaki

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Photos by Same Bithoney.

Welcome back to Sunday Sustenance, a weekly column where we cook for the laziest day of the week. In our grand debut last week, I highlighted the hot new #trending #cloudeggs. Now that Memorial Day is here, it’s time to get outside and grill — we’re making souvlaki.

You’ll probably say “Heck, that’s just fancy Europe talk for kabobs!” And I would say “Well, I’m also going to give you a recipe for tzatziki sauce and probably introduce you to horiatki salad as well.And you’d just stare at me and say “Whatever just feed me.”

The time I spent in the kitchen of Greek restaurants was extremely beneficial to my culinary ability. You see, people don’t like to share their recipes, and I had to learn everything by sight. Thankfully, most of the recipes weren’t very complicated. This is going to seem a bit daunting, but at the end of it all you’ll be confident as heck and left wondering why you hadn’t made this sooner.

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For the sake of flavor (and food safety!) we’ll start with the sauce first. You’ll need:

  • 16oz of good, full fat, plain Greek yogurt. Use the super thick stuff! I like Cabot.
  • ¼ cup fresh dill, chopped fine
  • ½ of a cucumber, peeled. Europeans work just fine here, seeds are blech.
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Grab a medium sized bowl and place the yogurt in there. Give it a pinch of fine kosher salt and a couple grinds of black pepper and add the garlic before setting it aside.

Grate the cucumber on the large holes of a box grater. Using a tea towel, thick paper towel, nut milk bag, or cheesecloth, squeeze every last drop of liquid out. Turn into the Hulk if you have to. Any extra liquid will mean watery yogurt sauce later, and no one is ever happy to open a container of yogurt and see that. Once it’s reached Sahara-levels of dry, add it to the yogurt mix and stir to combine.

Now, I say to use ¼ cup of dill, but the truth is I don’t know how much to use. I find fresh dill to be polarizing for some people, so I go by sight with this. When it looks and tastes “right” (a little burn from the garlic and the coolness of cucumber and dill) get some plastic wrap on it and into the refrigerator. The flavors will intensify, and the sauce will firm up considerably in the time it takes you to make the chicken.

You like-a the sauce?

Keeping in the good graces of the FDA, let’s move on to our Horiatiki salad. I was told that this is what you’d get in Greece if you asked for a “Greek salad” (typically followed by being yelled at and struck upside the head or kidney) instead of a pile of iceberg lettuce with feta dust. You’ll need:

  • A block of feta
  • Fresh, ripe tomatoes – plum is best
  • Grab some olives from the olive bar! Kalamatas are tradtional, but I like Spanish Queens
  • Red onion, sliced thin
  • The other half of that cucumber
  • The absolute best extra virgin olive oil you can get
  • Dried oregano

This is a chopped salad with few ingredients, so freshness and ripeness are the key to big flavors. Cut the tomato and cucumber into bite size pieces, slice your onion thin, dollop a few olives about. Top with a ½ inch thick slice of feta, or dot it with enough chunks to satisfy your dairy lust. Just before serving, drizzle that oil you weren’t sure you could afford this month and sprinkle the oregano as if your meme status depends on it.

Olive my love, to you

All that’s left is the chicken. And for that we need

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  • Skewers! Round bamboo skewers will need to be soaked for about 15 minutes before use. Though less costly, the meat can spin about freely and lead to uneven cooking, which is bad news for chicken. I like flat skewers with a good point and decent sized handle, like these.
  • Boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into 1 inch cubes
  • Green bell peppers, cut into 1 inch pieces
  • Yellow onion, also 1 inch pieces
  • ¼ cup lemon juice. Fresh is best, but no one is going to admonish you for using the bottled stuff.
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Fine kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Dried oregano

If you’d like, some pocketless pita or naan can be used to make these into awesome little sandwiches.

For a charcoal grill, get a full chimney going now. Lump coal is best, briquettes are acceptable. Line a baking sheet with parchment or wax paper. Skewer in this order: pepper-chicken-onion-chicken and repeat until your skewer is full, leaving about 1 inch of space at the end and, using your hands, space out the meat and vegetables on the skewer. Place the completed skewers on the lined baking sheet, wrap with plastic and stick them in the freezer for 15 minutes when you’re done. Mix the olive oil and lemon juice in a small bowl. Charcoal fiends, your coals should be white and ready. You want as hot as a fire as possible, so dump everything to one side. Propane grill users, light all of your burners to high.

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Chilling beforehand is something I picked up from a Cook’s Illustrated write-up about burgers. Since doneness is a manageable factor with beef, you’ll have an easier time acquiring a crisp exterior and say, medium-rare interior. Chicken, however, doesn’t play nice at medium-rare. Since we’re using cubes on skewers, we have more surface area to cook faster. So the chill beforehand will help to prevent our chicken breast from drying too quickly inside while still giving us a nice doneness on the exterior. Thus, a grill as hot as a thousand suns is required.

As soon as your grill is hot enough to singe your arm hair from a mile away, clean and oil your grates. Place the skewers on the grill over direct heat, and season with salt, pepper and oregano before closing the lid and let it go for 2 minutes. Turn them to the other side and season, letting it cook another 2 minutes. Rotate the kabob pole to pole, give the skewers ¼ turn, and mop with the oil/lemon mix and—you guessed it—cook it for another 2 minutes. Give it another turn, mop, 2 minutes, and you should be done.

Mopping keeps the veggies moist and slows them from cooking faster than the chicken. Don’t be afraid to use the whole thing.

(If you elected to pick up some pocketless pita or naan, now is the time to very lightly brush it with oil and grill it where you were cooking your kabobs. Char each side until the sugars are caramelized, but not burnt. Follow your nose: as soon as you smell that sugary sweet bread smell give it a flip, cooking for about 15-20 seconds per side.)

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And you’re DONE. You can pull everything right off the skewers and have a fork and knife affair, or slather some of that scrumptious sauce with some tomato and onion for a sandwich that would make Zeus weep. You can’t go wrong either way.


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