A few years ago when we lived in Astoria, a Greek-American neighborhood of New York City, I stored up a plate full of delicious Greek food memories that ranged from egg-lemon soup to roast chicken to sweet, rich baklava dripping with honey and thick, strong Greek coffee with the grounds right in the cup.
One of the most enduring of those food memories was neither sit-down restaurant nor coffee-house fare, but a decidedly modest street-food item: Souvlaki, a wonderful walk-around treat sold by street-corner vendors. It's really nothing more than cubes of lamb stuck on a skewer, grilled over charcoal and very simply seasoned with garlic, oregano and lemon, yet another demonstration of the perfection of simplicity.
Just about every commercial corner in Astoria had at least one souvlaki man, but I swear ours was the best, holding station almost year-round with his cart, grill and umbrella just down the stairs from the Ditmars Boulevard subway station at 23rd Avenue and 31st Street. His souvlaki was always crisp on the outside, tender within, distinctly lamb-flavored but never unacceptably gamey. Even the smoke that drifted from his grill smelled so good that it would draw you in from blocks around.
I'd often pick up a couple of sizzling sticks to carry home, an easy dinner that could be pulled right off the skewer and served, still hot, with rice or bread and a salad.
Now we're back in Louisville, which has plenty to recommend it in the culinary department, but sadly the nearest souvlaki man is about 700 miles away.
But that doesn't mean I can't make my own! All it takes is a few simple ingredients, none rare or exotic; and you don't even have to use lamb, as beef, pork or even chicken or turkey will make acceptable substitutes. It's also okay to roast the meat in the oven or saute it in a skillet on the stovetop.
I say lamb is best, though, and grilling it over charcoal is best; and if I make souvlaki at all, that's how I'm going to do it.
It's not that complicated a process to cut your lamb into cubes, stick them on skewers and grill them, but it's even easier to grill a one-piece slab of lamb, which leaves open the option of cutting it into cubes, slices or steaks depending on how you want to serve it.
INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)
About 1 pound (under 1/2 kilo) boneless lamb leg
3-4 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon (15g) olive oil
1 teaspoon (5g) dried oregano
1. You'll save time and effort if you can buy a one-pound chunk of boneless lamb leg, but if you have to cut it up yourself, try to cut out a piece that you can butterfly (slice almost through the middle and open like a book) so as to end up with a fairly even rectangular piece of meat about 10 inches long by 3 inches wide and 1 inch thick, with a little fat left on one side. It's not at all important that it be exactly even; variations in thickness, nooks and crannies simply allow for a few nice charred bits to add texture to the rare meat.
2. Peel the garlic cloves, cut them into thin slivers, and, using a small, sharp paring knife, poke the slivers into small slots all over the meat. Rub the meat all over with the olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and put it on a plate at room temperature, allowing a half-hour or so for the flavors to blend. (NOTE: Many souvlaki recipes call for marinating the meat in olive oil, garlic and herbs and sometimes wine, but I recommend skipping this step, preferring the clean, defined flavors of freshly char-grilled meat, simply seasoned.)
3. While you wait, build a hot charcoal fire in your grill, being patient while you wait for all the coals to be covered with gray ash. I like plain chunk charcoal in preference to briquettes, but use what you've got. Set up the grill for direct and indirect cooking, with part of the grill directly over coals and part of it over clear space where you can move the meat to let it cook without direct exposure to the fire.
4. When the coals are ready, put the lamb on the grill, fat side down, directly over the fire. Let it cook for just a minute or two; it will sear quickly, but you don't want it to burn. Turn over the lamb and let it cook on the other side for one minute; turn it again and rotate it 90 degrees so as to get criss-crossed grill marks. One more minute, then turn again for a final minute on the other side. Now, move the lamb, fat side up, to a spot on the grill where it's not directly over the coals but close enough to stay hot. Close the grill lid and let it cook on indirect heat, turning it after about 10 minutes; after 10 more minutes, check for doneness by touch, cutting a small slit in the meat to see if it's hot-pink inside, or with a meat thermometer, looking for a temperature around 145F.
5. When the lamb is cooked as you like it (and please try it medium, hot-pink rare), remove it to a hot plate. Sprinkle with the dried oregano, a little more salt and pepper, and the juice of the lemon. You can serve it whole and carve it into thick slices at the table or, if you prefer a more souvlaki-like treatment, cut it into cubes before seasoning, put the cubes in a hot bowl with their juices and then toss in the oregano, salt, pepper and lemon. Either way, serve it while it's sizzling hot.
<B>MATCHING WINE:</B> The simplicity of this dish opens the option of just about any dry red wine that pairs well with red meat, from Bordeaux to Burgundy to the Rhone Valley and Northern Italian reds and their New World equivalents. It was great with the Domaine Grand Veneur 2005 "Les Champauvins" Cotes-du-Rhone Villages featured in yesterday's <I>30 Second Wine Advisor</I>.
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