In spite of having spent time in both Cyprus and Astoria, Queens, arguably the dual capitals of Greek cooking in the world, I don’t know much about Greek cuisine. When I hear a restaurant is serving Greek food, I conjur up hazy childhood memories of the rice-stuffed grape leaf dolmades and the golden-fried, honey-dipped loukoumades of a year spent on Cyprus when I was a little kid. In almost equal measure, I flash back on the street vendors clustered around the Ditmars Boulevard subway stop in Astoria, the last stop on the N train in Queens.
These memories are a little more clear (except for those evenings where they conspicuously aren’t). At nearly any time of day or night, shining steel street carts in various states of repair spewed columns of white smoke, perfuming the otherwise cold Autumn air with the smell of grilling chicken or pork, cooked over an open flame before being speared into a chunk of crusty bread. It was a quick, easy, inexpensive snack that seemed as appropriate at 8:00 in the morning on the way to work, as it did bleary-eyed at the end of a long night out. Actually, referring to it as a “snack” downplays the significance of this food in my life in those days; at a time when about 70% of my take-home pay was spent on the financial funhouse mirror that makes up the NYC rental housing market, a $2 complete meal-on-a-stick was often a necessity.
The economy of the dish is only part of its charm: flavorful chunks of chicken are brightened by their lemon juice and oregano marinade, before being grilled and piled onto a warmed piece of pita with plenty of thinly-sliced onion and diced tomato. The creamy tzatziki brings the whole thing together into an easy, portable meal that’s a snap to prepare for even the least ambitious amateur grill-jockeys.
Chicken Souvlaki Pita
Adapted from a recipe in Food and Wine; Serves 4
- 2 cups plain yogurt
- 1 cucumber, halved lengthwise, peeled, seeded, and grated
- 1 1/4 teaspoons salt
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- Fresh-ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon dried dill
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 4 pieces pita bread
- 1 small onion, cut into thin slices
- 2 tomatoes, diced
- Scoop the yogurt into a strainer lined with cheesecloth, and set the strainer over a bowl. Let the yogurt drain for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine the cucumber with 1 teaspoon of the salt, and let sit for 15 minutes. Squeeze the cucumber to remove the liquid. Add the cucumber to the bowl with the stained yogurt, and stir in the garlic, half of the pepper, and the dill.
- Heat the broiler or light the grill. In a small bowl, combine the oil, lemon juice, oregano, and remaining salt and pepper. Toss the chicken cubes in the marinade to coat evenly, and thread them onto wooden skewers. Grill over high heat or under the broiler, turning occasionally, until done, about 6-8 minutes total. Transfer chicken to a plate.
- To serve, put the pitas on plates and top with the onion, tomatoes, and chicken skewers with any accumulated juices. Serve with a scoop of tzatziki.