Sunday, March 14, 2010

Chicken Gyros with Homemade Tzatziki

I'm not saying that I'm the greatest cook ever, but I can certainly claim to be at least 3x better than I was a year ago. The thing I love about cooking is the fact that it's almost immediately rewarding. It's not one of those skills like learning a language or an instrument where it takes months of hard work and practice before you get a payoff. And yet, for something so simple to pick up, cooking offers endless challenges and variety. I can't imagine ever learning everything there is to know about it.

The other day, I got a serious craving for chicken gyros. Just a couple of years ago, I probably would have just looked up a place on Yelp! and jumped in my car. But now that I'm hooked on cooking, it didn't even occur to me to go out. First of all, I desperately wanted to revisit the killer tzatziki from Ina Garten by way of Smitten Kitchen. Second, I'm training myself to like fennel, and I wanted to use some in Nigella's Greek salad. Though not technically a gyro (I'm not really set up for spit roasting in my house), the marinated, pan-grilled chicken was just as juicy and flavorful as the rotisserie version. I knew all the chords I needed to make music. This came together super quickly and was light, summery, and delicious. Exactly what I was craving.

Note: Start this about an hour and a half before you plan on eating. The chicken and red onions need to marinate (and frankly, the tzatziki benefits from a bit of a rest as well). The timing should go: marinate chicken, marinate red onions, take a wine break, make tzatziki, assemble and dress salad, grill chicken and heat pitas. Total hands-on cooking time is about half an hour.

Greekish Grilled Chicken
I am constantly refilling the chicken broth pipeline in my house, so I bought a whole chicken and deboned it, saving the carcass for broth. This could easily be simplified by buying packaged thighs and/or breasts.

4-6 skinless, boneless chicken pieces (legs and/or breasts), cut into chunks about 2 inches across. Make sure none of the pieces is too thick.
Half a red onion (save the other half for the Greek salad)
⅔ of a very juicy Meyer lemon, juice and zest (see the instructions for clarification)
Leaves from 6-8 sprigs of fresh thyme
1½ tablespoons olive oil
Salt and fresh-ground pepper

1. Peel the onion and cut in half lengthwise. Place the flat side on the cutting board and slice into very thin rings, discarding the end pieces. You may want to go ahead and slice the other half for your salad now. 

2. Combine red onion, thyme, olive oil, maybe a teaspoon of salt, and a few grindings of black pepper in a bowl large enough to hold the chicken pieces. Wash and zest the lemon. Then cut the lemon open, but instead of two even halves, go for a ⅓ - ⅔ split. Squeeze the bigger half into the marinade, discarding any seeds. Add in all of the zest. Mix well, then toss the chicken pieces in this marinade and refrigerate, covered, for at least an hour or up to overnight.

3. Heat a heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat. Grill the marinated chicken pieces for about 5-6 minutes, turning as necessary. You may need to do this in batches.

Greek Salad (adapted from Forever Summer by Nigella Lawson)
Though Forever Summer is one of Nigella's shortest cookbooks, it's the one I turn to most often. Just about every dish I've made from it is a winner, with results that belie the minimal amount of effort involved, and all the recipes are well within reach of the beginner cook.

½ red onion
½ teaspoon of dried oregano
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon good quality olive oil
1 bulb of fennel (optional)
1 English cucumber, washed and seeded
2 tomatoes
¼ cup of crumbled feta
¼ cup of pitted kalamata olives
Washed salad greens (I used arugula)
⅓ of a juicy Meyer lemon (the other ⅔ is for your chicken marinade)
Salt and fresh-ground pepper

1. Slice the red onion thinly, if you haven't done so already when making the chicken marinade above. Place in a bowl along with the vinegar, oil, and oregano. Season with a little sea salt and black pepper. Leave this to steep for about two hours (you can get away with one hour).

2. After the onions have been steeping for about an hour (during which time you can make the tzatziki), chop your cucumber into smallish chunks.

3. Slice fennel thinly with a sharp knife or mandoline, discarding stalks and the bottom of the bulb. The trick to liking fennel, I've found, is to buy the smallish bulbs (about the size of a large pear) and slice it very, very thinly. It adds a lovely crunch to your salad, and the anise-y flavor provides an interesting herbal note.

4. Slice the tomatoes into quarters and then quarter each of the quarters, so you get very thin wedges. Spread these out on a plate or chopping board and sprinkle with a pinch of sea salt.

5. In a large bowl, toss salad greens, cucumbers, fennel, tomatoes, and olives. Then add the onions and their marinade and toss thoroughly. Squeeze the smaller half of the lemon over the top and toss again. Finally, scatter the crumbled feta over the top.

Tzatziki (adapted from Smitten Kitchen)
1 English cucumber or 4 Persian cucumbers
14 oz. (just shy of two cups) Greek yogurt
¼ cup sour cream (or creme fraiche, which is what I tend to have in the house)
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon minced fresh dill (or mint, or both)
1 clove grated garlic
1-2 teaspoons sea salt (to taste)
Fresh ground pepper

1. Seed your cucumber(s), leaving the peel on. I find that a demitasse spoon is the perfect tool for seeding cucumbers. Grate on the large holes of a box grater or use the grating blade on your food processor. Squeeze any excess water out with a paper towel.

2. In a medium-sized mixing bowl, combine yogurt, sour cream, lemon juice, vinegar, cucumber, dill and/or mint, garlic, salt and pepper. Mix well. Let rest for 15 minutes for the flavors to develop.

To Serve:
1. Heat a few pitas in your toaster or oven.
2. Let everyone make their own sandwiches, with chicken, tzatziki, and the dressed veggies from the salad. You can also serve with harissa (either store-bought or homemade) if you want a bit of heat.


  1. Have you tried roasting your fennel? It cuts the flavor some (as with any roasted veggie, really). I've enjoyed it that way, but have never had it raw.

  2. @Jess, I have had fennel cooked in restaurants, though I feel it then loses the crunch, which is one of the parts I've learned to like about fennel. You should give it a go raw! But be sure to either slice or chop it pretty finely.

    @Liz, hope you enjoy it!


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