It’s all Greek
What’s cooking today: Chicken souvlaki with homemade pitas and tzatziki
Last year, The World TasteAtlas ranked Greek cuisine second best among the world’s top 50 cuisines, slotted neatly between Italy in first place and Spain in third.
The experiential travel online guide for traditional food, which collates authentic recipes, food critic reviews, and research articles, describes itself as “a world atlas of traditional dishes, local ingredients, and authentic restaurants”. Its best Greek dishes? Hortopita (a rustic pie filled with “horta” – or greens – herbs and feta, described as the rustic cousin to spanakopita), antikristo (grilled Cretan lamb) and païdakia (lamb chops). Inasmuch as the 50 most authentic and best dishes are interesting, the guide has an even lovelier list of truly terrible-sounding food, with a Russian fish salad that originated in Yakutia, the coldest inhabited region in the world, recently voted the very worst (alongside pizza cake from Canada and hákarl, or cured shark meat from Iceland).
What’s indigirka salad you might wonder? It’s a raw salad of white fish, onions, oil, pepper, and salt, which doesn’t sound all that bad until you read the preparation: The fish is frozen before preparation, then peeled, fileted, and cubed. Then the fish cubes are mixed with cubed onions and seasoned with oil, salt, and pepper. For special occasions, fish roe can be added to the mix. Sounds nice enough. Here’s what ruins it: the salad is kept in the freezer until serving, to prevent the fish from thawing.
Back to Greece then (shamelessly wearing my heart on my sleeve here), to the land of truly godly food: having worked at one of the finest Greek restaurants South of the Hellenic Republic, Lemonia in Hout Bay (which sadly closed almost two decades ago), where they made their own Greek yoghurt, fresh pitas and other divine foods, there’s little that beats a classic chicken souvlaki.
Marinated in fresh lemon juice, Greek oregano, olive oil and seasoning, then grilled over a fire, souvlaki served with tzatziki from homemade Greek yoghurt, chopped salad and homemade pita is the bomb. Truly. Here’s my recipe
(Serves at least 6)
1kg chicken breast/deboned thighs, sliced in generous cubes
½ cup lemon juice
½ cup olive oil
6 cloves garlic
Two onions, sliced in chunks
Tbsp origanum (Greek is first prize – specialist delis like Giovanni’s in Sea Point carry it)
Salt and pepper to taste
Four bay leaves, fresh preferably
Marinade the chicken at least overnight in the above. Once ready to grill, soak wooden skewers in water for half an hour and thread meat onto skewers. If preferred, add chunks of onion from the marinade to the skewers for extra flavour. Set aside.
Easy peasy pita:
3 cups flour (½ cake and ½ wholewheat flour is best for a nutty taste, otherwise just use cake flour)
About a cup of water
1 tsp salt
2 tsp active dry yeast
1 tsp sugar
Place four into a large mixing bowl, add yeast, salt, sugar and oil, mix and add water. Stir until mixture forms a sloppy mass, tip it onto a well-floured surface and knead lightly until it all comes together. Keep kneading, adding more water or flour if the dough is too sloppy or too firm. It should resemble a soft bread dough. Knead for about 10 minutes. Place in an oiled bowl, Cover with cling wrap and let the dough rise in a warm place until doubled in size, which takes about an hour.
Once it has, knock it down gently, remove from the bowl, separate into about eight equal balls and allow to rise again — do not skip this step.
Once the balls have risen, shape the pitas, spread the balls into circles / ovals or whatever you like, about a centimetre thick, using a floured rolling pin. If the dough starts to spring back, set it aside to rest for a few minutes, then continue rolling. Repeat with the other pieces of dough.
Fry in a cast iron skillet/griddle (coated with a smidgeon oil and covered with a lid) on a stovetop, until the pitas begin to puff up. Repeat until they are all cooked.
This dough keeps well in the fridge, provided it is covered in plastic, so you don’t have to cook all at once.
Take half an English cucumber, peeled and grated. Place grated cucumber on a wooden board, sprinkle with coarse sea salt and set at an angle over a sink so extra liquids can drain off. Leave for at least an hour.
Once ready, squeeze cucumber to remove excess water and place cucumber in a bowl with six chopped and crushed cloves of garlic, a handful of freshly chopped mint, a splash of olive oil, the juice of half a lemon and a half a teaspoon of dill. Mix well. Season to taste and set aside in the fridge.
Grill souvlaki over a charcoal fire or on a flat top. Once ready, serve souvlaki either inside the pita breads with a simple salad of chopped ripe tomato, cucumber and onion, and dollops of tzatziki, or accompanied with salad, pita and tzatziki.
Don’t forget the wedges of lemon! Kalí órexi! DM
Tony Jackman will be back in August. Follow Tony on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks.