There’s a Greek church in our neighborhood that has a biannual street festival so grand you can hear it clear across town and smell it from blocks away.  It’s a magnificent spectacle, and the food never disappoints:  spanakopita, moussaka, and souvlaki, of course, as well as orange-scented, country-style sausages called loukaniko and lamb roasted on a spit and sliced right onto your plate.

The festival invariably coincides with my mother-in-law’s birthday in the spring and my father-in-law’s in the fall, and we’ve come to associate the food of the eastern Meditteranean with celebrating special occasions.  So it came as no surprise when Andy requested Greek-style chicken kebobs, grilled vegetables, and rice pilaf for his birthday dinner this weekend.

No Greek feast in our house is complete without tsatziki, a simple yogurt and cucumber sauce that’s particularly good with a grilled dinner.  The secret to great tsatziki is to draw as much excess liquid out of the ingredients before combining them (watery tsatziki is a sorry sauce indeed!).  That means salting the cucumbers and using a thick, Greek-style yogurt.  If, like me, you’re hesitant to spend upwards of four dollars on a 16-ounce container of Fage, you can fake it: spoon your usual plain yogurt (any fat content will work — 2% is my preference) into a fine-meshed sieve lined with a coffee filter (use two or three, torn open, if your filters are small) and set over a bowl.  Let the yogurt strain in the fridge for an hour or two, until thick and creamy.  It will reduce about 1/3 in volume and triple in deliciousness.  Try not to eat it all before you make the sauce — especially if it’s for someone else’s birthday.

Tsatziki with dill and mint

Yield:  Makes a little more than 2 cups, plenty to accompany dinner for 6

2 c. plain, Greek yogurt (or use 3 c. regular yogurt, strained — see instructions, above)

1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and diced

Kosher salt

1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped

Juice of 1/2 lemon (about 1 tbsp.)

1 tbsp. finely chopped, fresh dill

1 tbsp. finely chopped, fresh mint leaves

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Place diced cucumber in a colander in the sink.  Toss with a teaspoon or two of salt, and let stand for half an hour.  Drain well and pat dry with a towel.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine cucumber, garlic, lemon juice, dill, mint, and a few grindings of pepper.  Pulse until finely chopped.  Add yogurt, and process until well-combined.  Adjust seasoning as needed.  Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Tsatziki keeps well in the fridge for 4-5 days — spoon off any liquid that’s risen to the top before serving.

What do I do with all these leftover herbs?

Make a marinade!  Whisk together the juice of  the remaining 1/2 lemon, a few tbsp. olive oil, a few lightly crushed garlic cloves, a few grindings of black pepper, and a handful of fresh mint and dill, finely chopped.  Cut 8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (or try lamb) into 2-inch cubes and toss with the marinade.  Cover and refrigerate for a few hours.  Thread onto 6 skewers, season with salt, and grill over medium heat (or broil) until cooked through.

Serve with grilled vegetables, rice, and, of course, tsatziki.

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