Summer in the Midwest offers a continuous stream of street fairs, state fairs, ethnic fests and food festivals. All of them include a bevy of food. At many of them, you will find a vendor selling a Greek-style sandwich called a Gyro.
I had my first gyro about 20 years ago at the Taste of Chicago. One of the Greek restaurants in Chicagoland was serving them up hot and fresh. A mammoth hunk of well-seasoned meat, mostly lamb, was roasting slowly on a vertical skewer. The sandwich maker carved thin slices of meat, piling them onto warm pita bread. The meat was topped with generous amounts of tzatziki, a creamy cucumber yogurt sauce, and plenty of onions and tomatoes.
I was intrigued. I ordered one of the foil-wrapped Greek concoctions. Lucky for me, the vendor was offering only gyros. I just walked up to the counter and said, "I'll take one, please." No need to try to pronounce that "G" word.
Since that tasty introduction I've learned the most accepted way for a very non-Greek person like me to pronounce the name of that glorious and messy meal in a pita is YEE-roh.
Last week I nabbed a long slender cucumber at the farmers market. My first garden-fresh cuke of the season led me to begin thinking of cucumber sauce which led to salivation over the thought of gyros.
After doing some research, I came up with a very non-traditional gyro, but it fixed my craving.
When packed tightly into a loaf pan to bake, seasoned lean ground meat becomes very firm and easy to slice, mimicking the thin carvings from the more traditional vertical skewer-roasted meat. The seasoned meat mixture can be mixed the day before baking. Flavors of onion, garlic and fresh herbs will permeate the meat. I used half ground beef and half ground lamb. These days, most meat markets and large grocery stores carry lamb. As an alternative, try using half beef and half pork or all beef.
Fresh herbs are at their peak right now. If you don't have oregano and thyme growing in your own garden, check with friends and neighbors. You'd be helping them out with their pruning if you snipped a few sprigs from their plants. I've also been noticing small bags of fresh herbs at the farmers market.
Thick, creamy Yogurt Cucumber Sauce is a must for Gyros. This classic Greek sauce with small chunks of cucumber, some onion and garlic is often referred to as tzatziki (but who can pronounce that?). Used as a condiment, the sauce is good served with any grilled meat or fish.
Not-So-Traditional Gyros with Yogurt Cucumber Sauce are a glorious mess to eat, but, oh, are they delicious. Keep napkins handy!
Not-So-Traditional Gyros with Yogurt Cucumber Sauce
1 pound lean ground beef
1 pound ground lamb
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 chubby cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup chopped fresh oregano leaves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
8 to 10 (6-inch) pita bread rounds
3 medium fresh tomatoes, chopped
1 red onion, chopped
Butter lettuce leaves, if desired
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, combine ground beef, ground lamb, onion, garlic, oregano, thyme, salt and pepper. Clean hands seem to be the best tools for this job. Pack meat mixture into a 9- x 5- x 3-inch loaf pan. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until meat thermometer inserted into center of meat mixture reads 165 to 170 degrees. Remove from oven. Drain any juices in pan. Turn meat out of loaf pan onto a wire rack placed over a dish to catch any drips. Allow to cool slightly before slicing.
Slice loaf of meat into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Warm pita bread according to directions on package. Top pita rounds with meat slices, chopped tomato, chopped red onion and Yogurt Cucumber Sauce. A leaf of butter lettuce is a nice addition to the gyro. Makes 8 to 10 servings.
Yogurt Cucumber Sauce
1 cup plain Greek-style yogurt
1/2 cup finely chopped peeled and seeded cucumber
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
2 chubby cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Stir to mix well. Cover and chill thoroughly. Makes 1¼ cups.
Tips from the cook
--Tightly wrap and seal any leftover gyro meat and freeze for future use. It's good chopped and used on pizza or for making a Greek-style omelet.
--Greek yogurt is very thick and creamy. It's available in most grocery stores these days. If you're not able to find it, strain regular plain yogurt through two coffee filters placed inside of a fine strainer set over a bowl to catch the dripping liquid. Allow at least 2 hours for draining process.
--Fresh chopped mint or dill are nice additions to Yogurt Cucumber Sauce.