I have very early memories of Greek food because as a kid, the family would take regular vacations down to Florida and a regular stop on the trip was the Sponge Docks in Tarpon Springs. In the early 1900s a Greek immigrant recruited many Greeks to come over and start up the sponge trade. Today, local sponging is all but gone, but the Greek history remains and there are countless restaurants and diners in this tourist area that continue to serve up some fantastic and authentic Greek fare. As a kid growing up in the rural midwest, you can probably imagine how the sights and tastes of this food can stick with you well into adulthood. That’s why a few years ago I started looking at how to recreate one of my favorite treats, the gyro, right here at home.
Calling this creation a gyro is a slight misnomer because traditionally, a gyro is typically served with chicken or pork roasted on a large spit and then very thin shavings are placed inside the pita before condiments are added. Of course, those are fantastic, but creating that type of meat in the home kitchen isn’t an easy thing to do. Instead, marinating a large piece of meat, grilling it, and slicing very thin can recreate the classic flavors you’re accustomed to. And anybody with a grill (or even just an oven) can pull this off. Finally, by using lamb instead of chicken or pork, we elevate this common street food into something worth of entertaining with. So, let’s get started.
Ingredients (6-8 servings)
For the lamb:
- 4-5 lb leg of lamb, de-boned and butterflied
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- Juice of 2 lemons
- 3 Tbs red wine vinegar
- 3 Tbs chopped fresh rosemary
- 3 Tbs chopped fresh oregano
- 6 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 Tbs kosher salt
- 1/2 Tbs black pepper
For the finished gyros:
- 2 large tomatoes, chopped
- 1 medium red onion, sliced thinly
- 8 oz container of feta cheese
- 8 pieces of pita bread
For Tzatziki Sauce:
- 16 oz container of plain Greek yogurt
- 2 medium cucumbers, seeds removed, and chopped
- 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 3 Tbs lemon juice
- 2 Tbs fresh dill
- 1 Tbs kosher salt
- 1 Tbs fresh mint (optional)
Instructions for the Lamb
Your first order of business will be to locate lamb. Sadly, lamb is underutilized here in America, so finding it in the stores, and at a reasonable price, can sometimes be a chore. Luckily, we have a number of great meat markets and quality supermarkets in the area that make finding a good leg of lamb much easier than it was even ten years ago. Most of the time you’re going to find a full leg of lamb on the bone in a vacuum sealed package, weighing on average between 4-8 pounds. For this recipe that makes 6-8 servings, you only need about a 4-5 pound leg, but if all you can find is something on the larger end, ask the butcher if they can cut off just what you need. That’s exactly what I did when I found a large 9 pound leg at Martin’s Supermarket, which happened to be all they had left in stock. But the person working the meat counter was glad to cut it in half and remove the bone for me, which saved me a bit of prep work of de-boning it myself at home.
When you’ve got your lamb off the bone and are faced with a large slab of meat, you’ll want to do a little more trimming to get it ready for the grill. Go ahead and remove the excess fat and any remaining membranes that you see. It’s perfectly fine to end up with a very lean piece of meat because the meat from this part of the lamb is already incredibly tender and flavorful. Depending on how well you or your butcher trimmed the meat off the bone, you may have some parts of uneven thickness. This is fine, but you’ll want to trim the thick pieces off of the main piece so that you have as much uniformity in size as possible. If you were to simply throw the whole slab of meat on the grill, you’ll end up with the thin areas getting overcooked when the thicker areas are just perfect, or if you cook it so that the thinner parts are perfectly done the thicker areas will be raw. So, just cut the lamb up so that each chunk you cut off is uniform in size. Some pieces will be thicker than others, but that’s perfectly fine. This way you can just pull each piece off the grill individually as they reach your desired doneness.
Now that your meat is trimmed and ready to go it’s time to mix up the marinade. Start by adding the olive oil, lemon juice, red wine vinegar, rosemary, oregano, salt, pepper, and garlic to a mixing bowl and whisk together. When it’s thoroughly mixed, add it to a large zip top bag 0r shallow baking dish and add the lamb. Make sure you toss the meat around so the marinade covers everything and then let it sit in the refrigerator for at least an hour. Longer is better in this case, so if you can prepare this three or four hours in advance, that’s great. Even overnight is fine if you’re pressed for time. If you do marinade it for a longer period of time just be sure to occasionally toss or turn the pieces of meat to make sure they are staying well-covered by the marinade.
After the meat has marinaded for your desired time, pull it out of the fridge at least 30 minutes prior to cooking to allow it to come up closer to room temperature. While your meat is resting you can go ahead and get the grill started. Gas or charcoal, doesn’t matter. Use what you’re comfortable with and what you have. Bring the grill up to a medium heat and begin cooking the lamb. If you have a few pieces that are much thicker than the rest, add those first and let them cook for a couple of minutes before adding the rest so that way most of the meat should get done at around the same time. Turn frequently. Continue cooking until the meat reaches around 120-125 degrees for medium-rare, or about 130 degrees for medium. When you pull the meat from the grill at these temperatures and let it rest, the meat will continue to cook and increase at least another five degrees. This is where having a good meat thermometer comes in handy, but if you don’t have one and you’re familiar with cooking steaks and testing their doneness, you can use the same method here.
Once the meat has rested for about 10 minutes, slice bite-sized pieces, against the grain where possible and dump all of the meat into a large serving bowl. If you’d like, you can add a drizzle of olive oil and a little salt and pepper to the bowl and toss to coat to give it a little finishing touch. Finally, take your pieces of pita bread and throw them on the grill, still at medium heat, and let them warm up. We’re not looking to get the bread crunchy or anything, but just want to toast it lightly and warm it throughout. It should take just 30-60 seconds.
It’s time to eat! This is a great meal for guests to just pile on their own toppings however they’d like, so create a little assembly line starting with the toasted pita, the meat, tomatoes, onion, feta cheese, and tzatziki sauce.
Instructions for Tzatziki Sauce
One of the keys to this dish is the tzatziki sauce, which is a Greek staple. It’s incredibly easy to make and you’ll find that it can be used as a dip or sauce for almost anything.
Start by peeling two medium cucumbers and cut in half lengthwise. Take a spoon and scoop out the seeds, then give them a rough chop. If you’re using seedless English cucumbers, you can omit this step. Once chopped, put the cucumber into a colander or strainer in the sink and sprinkle the kosher salt on top and toss to coat. This step is important because the salt will draw out some of the excess moisture that would otherwise make your tzatziki very thin in consistency. Let the salted cucumber sit for 30-60 minutes.
For making the sauce a food processor can come in handy, but you can just use a grater to grate the cucumber into small pieces and then chop the herbs and garlic very fine by hand. If you have a food processor, add the cucumber, garlic, and dill to the processor and pulse to puree. Add the mixture to a bowl and then add the yogurt and lemon juice and fold to incorporate everything. Let it sit in the refrigerator for at least a few hours, but overnight is best. Enjoy!