Tranquil and Frenetic
Imagine yourself on a donkey, climbing a precarious rocky cliff on a Grecian isle, watching chips of rock and pebble fall to the cerulean seas below. You’re nervous yet exhilarated, torn between watching each step of the donkey’s four hooves on the narrow path and gazing at the stunning views of the Mediterranean Sea, the islands in the distance, and clusters of crisply whitewashed homes.
Then imagine yourself in a steamy diner in New York, where tables are full and thick plates clang on countertops as the waitstaff deftly and efficiently serves a lunch crowd. In one corner, next to a lit display of confections, sits a tray of honied baklava, the amber syrup dripping through the layers of fillo dough.
Two corners of the world, one tranquil and the other frenetic, separated by an ocean but brought together by the food of their shared Mediterranean ancestry. The Greek and the Greek-American. The original and the interpreted. But each authentic in its own way.
I love the flavors in Greek food, and the influence that comes from this part of the Mediterranean. There is an emphasis on fresh simplicity, good olive oil, and balancing savory meats with the freshness of the earth’s bounty. I crave the Greek-American food I grew up on from the restaurants in New York, especially the enclave of Greek-Americans in Astoria. Yet, I have never attempted to cook Greek food, and I’m not certain why.
Perhaps it is because the cuisine has not been covered adequately in American cookbooks until just recently, or because I am wary to cook lamb for fear I would be the only one to eat it in my house, or because I lack a vivacious and cuddly Greek grandmother to teach me the secrets behind a good moussaka.
It’s been years since I’ve visited Greece, and what I crave most often from the Astoria restaurants is the humble gyro. Pronounced “yee-roh,” gyros are those plump sandwiches of pita tucked with meat thinly shaved from spinning towers of rotisseried lamb and dressed with a tangy yogurt sauce, Tzatziki, fresh tomatoes and onions. I decided, enough is enough, I’m making my own Gyros with Tzatziki Sauce.
Since I don’t have a Greek grandmother, I started by scouring the current cookbooks. I looked at The Food and Wine of Greece and The Foods of the Greek Islands, to name a few, but it was not until I examined How to Roast a Lamb: New Greek Classic Cooking by Michael Psilakis that I finally encountered a gyro recipe. And believe it or not, trusty Alton Brown had a great recipe, as well.
I started with the Tzatziki sauce. It was a wonderful excuse to dust off the mandoline.
Some Tzaziki sauces call for diced cucumbers, but I liked the elegant and thin cucumber wafers. It allows more room for other goodies in the sandwich. The most critical aspect when making the sauce is to squeeze out all excess liquid – from the yogurt, from the cucumber – anything that might make the sauce runny must be eliminated.
As I worked through the recipe, I realized Greek cuisine is no different from California cuisine. The climate is similar, and of course, it’s all about using the simplest, freshest ingredients.
Now for the good stuff. The meat. There were critical decisions to be made. The traditional Greek gyro is made from towers of thinly sliced and stacked pork, although you can find varieties made with chicken or in doner kabab style with ground lamb and beef. Greek-American gyros, on the other hand, tend to be made with ground lamb and beef, essentially in a meatloaf style, but still on a vertical rotisserie. So, do I go Greek? Or Greek-American?
I decided to go with the Greek diner flavors found in New York – Greek-American, all the way. But it wasn’t going to be easy. Cooking a meatloaf on a rotisserie is tricky business. Of course, it would have been perfectly acceptable to bake the meat in a loaf pan in the oven, but that doesn’t seem as exciting, does it?
As the rotisserie worked its magic, whiffs of seasoned lamb began to drift across the yard. It was a familiar scent, with much promise. But I was rather anxious as it cooked – the meat threatened to fall off the rotisserie, and I was almost doubtful that the flavor would hold up to their inspiration. It wasn’t until I took the slices and folded it into a pillowy pita coated with the garlicky Tzatziki sauce that I was able to relax. With each bite, my tense shoulders slowly lowered, and I was calmed. I could taste the Mediterranean with each bite.
Sincerest thanks to all who voted for my first entry to Project Food Blog!! This post is my submission for Challenge 2: The Classics. Contestants were asked to select an ethnic classic that is outside our comfort zone or are not as familiar with, and to tackle the recipe as authentically as possible. Voting for this challenge takes place from 6AM Pacific Time (9AM Eastern) September 27th through 6PM Pacific Time (9PM Eastern) September 30th. If you like what you see, please consider clicking here to vote (click on the heart at the top of the page!).
- 1 medium onion
- 2 lbs ground lamb
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon dried marjoram
- 1 teaspoon oregano
- 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
Using the shredding attachment of a food processor, shred the onion. Place the onion in a cheesecloth and squeeze out the liquid. Return the onion to the bowl of the food processor. Add the lamb and the seasonings, process until very well incorporated.
On two pieces of plastic sheet that are overlapping, form a very tight loaf with the ground lamb mixture. Roll it tightly and allow to chill overnight in the refrigerator. A tightly rolled loaf is critical if using the rotisserie.
Skewer the loaf on the rotisserie and cook for at about 45 minutes, or until the internal temperature is 175 degrees Fahrenheit.
Alternatively, you can bake it in a water bath in the oven for about an hour at 350 degrees. Check it periodically and drain any excess fat.
Slice the meat thinly and serve on pita with Tzatziki sauce, thinly shaved onions and tomatoes.
- 17 oz good quality plain Greek yogurt
- 1 medium cucumber, thinly sliced
- 4 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
Place the yogurt into a cheesecloth or tea towel, gather up the edges and suspend it over a bowl in the refrigerator for 2 hours. After two hours, squeeze the excess liquid.
Place the slices of cucumber into a cheesecloth and gently squeeze out any liquid.
Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and allow the sauce to develop its flavors in the refrigerator while you prepare the meat.