THE BEST MEAL YOU CAN HOLD IN YOUR HANDS
Souvlaki is basically Greek for “meat grilled on a stick.” Just about every meat-eating culture has a version, but when it comes to being documented masters (if not originators) of this technique, Greek credentials are hard to beat. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are rich with detailed accounts of the heroes skewering meat and cooking it over fire, souvlaki-style.
In modern Greece, souvlaki is usually made with pork, but at Greek restaurants in the United States boneless, skinless chicken breast is most common. The chunks of white meat are marinated in a tangy mixture of lemon juice, olive oil, oregano, parsley, and sometimes garlic before being skewered and grilled until nicely charred. Souvlaki may be served with rice and cooked vegetables, but just as often the chicken is placed on a lightly grilled pita, slathered with a yogurt-based tzatziki sauce, and eaten out of hand.
This is among the most satisfying sandwiches on the planet. The creamy sauce, freshened with herbs and cucumber, complements the char of the chicken, and the soft pita offers more substance (and chew) than other wrappers. Tuck some grilled onions and peppers into the wrap and you have a meal.
The key to this dish is the lemony marinade. Rather than the usual 24 hours, which can dry out lean chicken and doesn’t really get much flavor deep into the meat, we prefer a hurry-up approach that includes a 30-minute brine (to promote juiciness) and then a quick toss with the dressing right before skewering. The real secret is to reserve some dressing and use it to coat the grilled chicken and vegetables. This step rehydrates their dry exteriors and delivers a bright citrus and herb punch you can taste in every bite.
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS
We trade in a long marinade for a quick brine but keep those traditional marinade flavors by giving the brined chicken a quick dip in an olive oil and lemon mixture seasoned with honey; the honey balances the flavors and promotes browning for a deeply flavorful charred crust. Be sure to reserve a portion of the olive oil–lemon mixture (before it’s tossed with the raw chicken) so you can slide the grilled meat from the skewers right into the bowl of marinade to moisten the exteriors and add a fresh layer of flavor.
Create a Vegetable Shield
The pieces of chicken cooked on the ends of the skewers often cook faster than the pieces in the middle. To solve this problem, we string chunks of bell pepper and red onion onto the ends of each skewer. The vegetables function as shields, protecting the end pieces of chicken from the heat so they cook at the same rate as the middle pieces.
Minced raw garlic is undeniably harsh, but there is a way to temper its pungency-briefly steep it in lemon juice. The acid converts the harsh-tasting garlic compound, allicin, into mellower compounds in the same way that cooking does. For perfect drizzling consistency, mix yogurt and cucumbers together and let the sauce rest, allowing the salt in the sauce to draw out the water from the cucumbers.
That’s a Wrap
Moisten the tops and bottoms of pocketed pitas and wrap them in foil before grilling. The gently steamed pitas will turn out soft and warm. To fold souvlaki as tidily as a street cart master, place the warm pita at one corner of a 12-inch square piece of foil, then layer the sandwich ingredients on top of the pita, leaving a 1-inch border on all sides. Fold the sides of the pita over the filling, then fold one side of foil over the sandwich. Fold up the bottom of the foil. Finally, fold over the other side of foil.
There’s a science to skewering the chicken, onion, and peppers and to assembling the wraps.
Grilled Chicken Souvlaki
- 15 minutes to make tzatziki sauce
- 30 minutes to brine chicken (make oil mixture and light grill while chicken is in fridge)
- 15 minutes to toss chicken with oil mixture and thread chicken and vegetables on skewers
- 15 to 20 minutes to grill skewers
- 5 minutes to marinate grilled chicken and vegetables in reserved oil mixture (heat pitas on grill while waiting)
- 5 minutes to assemble wraps
- Rasp grater for turning garlic into paste
- Four (12-inch) metal skewers
- Aluminum foil for protecting pitas on grill and for preparing wrap sandwiches
Substitutions & Variations
- We like the chicken as a wrap, but you may skip the pita and serve the chicken, vegetables, and tzatziki with rice.
- The tzatziki sauce is fairly mild; double the garlic if you like a more assertive flavor.
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 small garlic clove, minced to paste
- ¾ cup plain Greek yogurt
- ½ cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded, and diced fine (½ cup)
- 3 tablespoons minced fresh mint
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
- ⅜ teaspoon salt
- Salt and pepper
- 1½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed, cut into 1-inch pieces
- ⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
- 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest plus ¼ cup juice (2 lemons)
- 1 teaspoon honey
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 green bell pepper, quartered, stemmed, seeded, each quarter cut into 4 chunks
- 1 small red onion, ends trimmed, peeled, halved lengthwise, each half cut into 4 chunks
- 4 (8-inch) pita breads
- For the Sauce: Whisk lemon juice and garlic together in small bowl. Let stand for 10 minutes. Stir in yogurt, cucumber, mint, parsley, and salt. Cover and set aside.
- For the Chicken: Dissolve 2 tablespoons salt in 1 quart cold water. Add chicken to brine, cover, and refrigerate for 30 minutes. While chicken is brining, combine oil, parsley, lemon zest and juice, honey, oregano, and ½ teaspoon pepper in medium bowl. Transfer ¼ cup oil mixture to large bowl; set aside to toss with cooked chicken.
- Remove chicken from brine and pat dry with paper towels. Toss chicken with remaining oil mixture. Thread 4 pieces of bell pepper onto one 12-inch metal skewer. Thread one-quarter of chicken, then 2 chunks of onion onto skewer. Repeat skewering remaining chicken and vegetables on 3 more skewers. Lightly moisten 2 pita breads with water. Sandwich 2 unmoistened pita breads between moistened pita breads and wrap stack tightly in lightly greased heavy-duty aluminum foil.
- For a Charcoal Grill: Open bottom vent completely. Light large chimney starter mounded with charcoal briquettes (7 quarts). When top coals are partially covered with ash, pour evenly over half of grill. Set cooking grate in place, cover, and open lid vent completely. Heat grill until hot, about 5 minutes.
- For a Gas Grill: Turn all burners to high, cover, and heat grill until hot, about 15 minutes. Leave primary burner on high and turn off other burner(s).
- Clean and oil cooking grate. Place skewers on hotter side of grill and cook, turning occasionally, until chicken and vegetables are well browned on all sides and chicken registers 160 degrees, 15 to 20 minutes. Using fork, push chicken and vegetables off skewers into bowl of reserved oil mixture. Stir gently, breaking up onion chunks; cover with foil and let sit for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, place packet of pitas on cooler side of grill. Flip occasionally to heat, about 5 minutes.
- Lay each warm pita on 12-inch square of foil. Spread each pita with 2 tablespoons tzatziki. Place one-quarter of chicken and vegetables in middle of each pita. Roll into cylindrical shape and serve.
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