Sunday, 27 May 2012

Souvlaki with khoriatiki

I can't claim any ownership of these two classic Greek dishes, but when the weather's hot the simplicity of both makes the perfect meal. Some of the best dinners I've ever enjoyed have involved sitting on a restaurant terrace in Greece somewhere, eating grilled souvlaki with a traditional salad on the side and either some chips or pita bread with hummus. Not forgetting the bottle of chilled retsina.

You can rustle up the pair within minutes but you do need to give the meat at least 30 minutes to marinate, several hours if you have the time. I don't have any "twist" on these, unlike many well-known chefs - they are not dishes to be tinkered with, in my opinion.

What you need:
150-200g lamb fillet
A handful of ripe cherry or baby plum tomatoes
1 green pepper
5-6 cm piece of cucumber
7-8 dried black Greek olives
1 very small red onion
Olive oil
I lemon
A clove of garlic, crushed
Dried oregano
Seasoning
A small slab of feta cheese

What to do: 
First prepare the lamb. Trim off any excess fat and cut into about 12 2cm cubes. Zest the lemon and juice it. In a bowl, whisk up a marinade of a generous tablespoonful of olive oil, half the lemon juice and all the zest, garlic, a pinch of oregano and some freshly ground black pepper. Put the lamb cubes in, mix thoroughly, cover the bowl with clingfilm and chill in the fridge for as long as possible.

Make the salad. Halve the tomatoes (if you use regular tomatoes cut them into wedges). Halve the cucumber lengthwise, halve it again then cut into chunky quarters. Deseed the pepper and remove any white pith, then cut it half vertically and slice it horizontally into thin strips. Peel the onion and cut it into slim wedges. Put all the vegetables in a bowl and add the olives.

Grill the souvlaki. Thread the lamb cubes onto skewers, grind some sea salt over them and cook for about 9-10 minutes, turning them a couple of times.

While the meat is cooking, make the salad dressing. Add a good glug of olive oil to the rest of the lemon juice - about 3/4 oil. Add a pinch of oregano and some black pepper. Put the feta cheese in one piece on top of the salad and pour the dressing over.

Plate up - put the skewers on the plate, pile some salad next to it and add an extra lemon wedge for squeezing over the meat if you like. If you're very hungry, toast a pita bread for on the side - it's handy for mopping up the juices.

Cook's tips: 
Any of the lean lamb cuts can be used - neck, leg or shoulder fillet are all equally tender and grill well. If you can cook outdoors, do so as there may be a lot of smoke from the oil in the marinade. It's not worth firing up a full-on barbecue for one person, but the disposable ones are just the right size for this. If, like me, you don't even have a balcony then a ridged cast-iron grill pan on the hob is the best option - make sure it is scorching hot. You can also use the grill on your cooker, but the results won't be quite as good. 

Skewers - wooden or metal? I prefer metal myself as it conducts a little heat into the inside of the meat. I've never had much luck with wooden skewers - you need to soak them for at least an hour so they don't burn during cooking, which they always do when I use them.

There are only six ingredients ever in a Greek salad - tomatoes, peppers,olives, cucumber, onion and feta. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. There should be no lettuce of any sort, although even in Greece you might occasionally see a few sprigs of flat-leaf parsley - about the only permissible variation.

If you use an English cucumber for the salad, use a teaspoon to scoop out the seeds first so they don't make the salad watery - the small Mediterranean sort have very few seeds and are much firmer, if you can find them (they look like raw gherkins). Crespo do really nice dried Greek olives in a jar - most supermarkets stock them, but if you can't find any get some kalamata olives instead.

The Greeks always use fresh feta, which is softer, creamier and a lot less salty than the packaged sort. Unfortunately, it's really difficult to find here unless you are lucky enough to have a good cheese shop or deli nearby. If you're using packaged feta, as is most likely, make sure it says feta on the wrapper and not "salad cheese", which is inferior. About a quarter of the slab is enough. I rinse it under the cold tap first to get rid of some of the saltiness, then pat it dry carefully with a little kitchen roll.

Dried olives are salty too - I never add salt to the salad dressing for this reason.