Jamaican Jerk Chicken Stuffed Peppers

If there’s a better way to knock down a huge pile of peppers, I don’t what it is other than stuffing them with great flavors. Like you, I’ve had them the traditional way—with ground beef and rice, topped with tomato sauce. One of my go-to recipes through the years has been turkey stuffed peppers. But this time, my pepper purchase included a half dozen of these huge red beauties, and they have been begging me for something a little special.

Red bell peppers have so much going on. They are far sweeter than green bell peppers, packed with vitamin C (more than oranges, in fact) and well-suited to a number of terrific ethnic cuisines, including Italian, Asian, Spanish and, as we’re about to dive into today, Caribbean.

You don’t have to love spicy flavors to enjoy Jamaican jerk, but it certainly helps. A traditional jerk blend includes fresh thyme, allspice, scallions, a bunch of black pepper, ginger, nutmeg and a good dose of super-hot habanero pepper. But it’s not difficult to find a seasoning that backs off the habanero, and of course, you can always make your own from scratch.

This is the stuff, right here! Find it at Whole Foods, gourmet specialty stores or online.

This one happens to be my favorite, straight from Jamaica (as it should be) and packing plenty of heat. The brand is available at most Whole Foods stores or online. If your market doesn’t carry it, look for another with the aforementioned ingredients.

Another thing I love about the flavors in this recipe is that it’s very adaptable to vegan preferences. I’m always on the lookout for ways to make a recipe completely plant-based, because we never know when Les’s daughter may be free for a visit, and this one would be a snap. Just omit the chicken and double the sweet potato and black beans—done!

This recipe serves 2, double it up to feed a hungry family.


Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil

1/2 lb. ground chicken

1 small red onion, chopped

1 medium raw sweet potato, shredded* (see notes)

1/2 can black beans, drained and rinsed

1/2 green bell pepper, chopped

1 Tbsp. Jamaican jerk seasoning*

2 large red bell peppers

*Notes

Shredding the sweet potatoes helps speed up the recipe because they cook so quickly. If you prefer, you could cut them into small cubes and give them a little more time to soften before adding the black beans. I used the food processor to shred them, but a box grater would also work.

The jerk seasoning I like is meant to be a rub for grilling or smoking, rather than an add-in, so it’s tipping the scale toward the sodium side. For this reason, no additional salt is mentioned in the recipe—the jerk seasoning has it covered. I always recommend examining the nutrition information on labels so you know what you’re getting into. If you use a dry jerk seasoning rub, it’s likely to have even more salt, so use your judgment and cut back to a lesser amount accordingly.

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350° F, with rack in the center.
  2. Heat a non-stick skillet over medium heat, swirl in olive oil and brown the ground chicken with the onion and green bell pepper. When chicken is no longer pink and vegetables are softened, add shredded sweet potato and black beans. Cook a few more minutes, until sweet potato is tender. Mix in the Jamaican jerk seasoning rub and stir to combine.
  3. Prep the red bell peppers by cutting the tops just below the stem line. I like to replace the top during baking and presentation, so it helps to cut low enough to keep the stem intact. Use a paring knife to cut around the seed pod and remove seeds and membranes.
  4. Soften the whole peppers by putting them upside-down in a microwave-safe dish with about 1/2” water (with the tops squeezed in the side), and microwave at full power about 2 minutes.
  5. Fill peppers with jerk chicken mixture, replace tops and cover peppers tightly with foil. This will help retain moisture while the peppers bake for 35 to 40 minutes.

They’re spicy, fresh and satisfying, packed with plenty of nutrients. Serve the peppers piping hot, just as they are, or with your favorite island-inspired sides. This was a test run for me, and now that I know it’s a keeper, I’ll make some mango-scallion rice to go with it. Won’t that be pretty?

There’s so much flavor and nutrition packed into this dish. My husband feared he wouldn’t be able to finish his portion.

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Yep, he finished it.

Lentil Moussaka

Sumptuous layers of Mediterranean flavor—béchamel-topped eggplant, potatoes and ground meat seasoned with a delightfully different tomato-y sauce. Moussaka is one of my favorite Greek-themed foods. It’s not quite lasagna, not quite eggplant parmesan, but 100% the comfort food value of both, and while the one pictured is a vegetarian version, there is also a simple switch to make it vegan.

You read correctly. Vegan moussaka. All the flavor, all the richness, all the comfort, but none of the meat. And it’s way easier to make than you might imagine. I’ve learned that when it comes to “converting” a meat-centric recipe into a vegan delight, if you keep your focus on the spices and flavors, you’ll have a winner. It’s not the meat that makes moussaka special, but the other layers of flavor around it, and especially the tomato sauce. Unlike an Italian red sauce, this one gets its distinct flavor from warm spices, such as cinnamon and coriander. And if we can nail those flavors, it really doesn’t matter what goes in place of the meat—but of course, I’ll offer some suggestions to get you started.

This is my approach to making a vegan version of a classic dish. I want protein, texture and flavor—the three things the meat would otherwise contribute to the moussaka, and the rest of the recipe will remain traditional. Lentils will bring the protein, and they’re one of the earliest crops domesticated in ancient Greece, so they’re already speaking the same language as the spices and eggplant. And I love lentils! One cup of cooked lentils packs a hefty 16 grams of protein, about the same as a 3-ounce serving of cooked ground beef. They add more than 15 grams of dietary fiber, too. Nutrition-wise, this is a very smart substitute. If I didn’t have them, I’d probably be looking at garbanzo beans.

Plenty of vegetables provide the other qualities my recipe needs, but I want to avoid the ones that might compete with the eggplant and especially that scrumptious sauce. Bell peppers are great with eggplant (I can’t wait to make ratatouille this summer), but the flavor feels a little off for moussaka. Broccoli is too bitter. Green beans are too specific in shape. Zucchini is a little high on water content. I need something I can chop or pulse into smaller pieces in the food processor. That leaves me with cauliflower, washed kale leaves, onions and carrots. There’s good body in all of them, and they’ll hold their shape after a quick sauté.

There are a few other tricks I’ll employ to make this dish hearty and satisfying. I’ll salt and sweat the eggplant slices to make them more “meat-like,” and nutritional yeast will help bring an umami experience to the vegan bechamel topping, which would otherwise be bland and uninteresting. My husband’s adult daughter has embraced the vegan lifestyle, and she comes to town every so often for special dinners. As a result, all these ideas have become very common to me, but I don’t want to assume all of this makes sense to you, dear friends, so let me back up a little bit.

What does it mean to “salt and sweat” the eggplant?

Layering the sliced eggplant on salted paper towels will draw out the moisture from the eggplant, which improves the texture a great deal, especially when I want to grill or roast the eggplant as a replacement for meat. If you’ve ever had slimy, bitter or soggy eggplant, somebody skipped this step. Please give eggplant another chance. Properly “sweated,” eggplant will be remarkably meaty and substantial—exactly what we want in this moussaka. Take care of this step a couple hours before you’re ready to make the full recipe.

What is nutritional yeast?

Nutritional yeast is a common substitute for cheesy flavor in vegan cuisine. It’s the same species, but not the same form as the yeast you’d use to bake bread. Nutritional yeast is a yellowish flaky substance, widely available at any natural foods store or online from Bob’s Red Mill. It provides some of the salty, savory quality you would expect in a hard cheese such as parmesan. It’s tasty just sprinkled on hot popcorn. And for the vegan moussaka, it will lend a familiar “cheesiness” to the béchamel alternative.

What does “umami” mean?

When I was a kid, we learned in science class that the human taste buds recognized four main things—sweet, sour, salty and bitter. But within the past decade or so, a fifth taste, “umami” was officially invited to join the party. It’s a savory flavor that is most easily described by example. Think of what you taste when you bite into a piece of steak, or a sautéed mushroom, or a piece of sharp cheese. This savory sensation is distinctly different from the other four tastes and is often the missing link in meatless dishes. If you can successfully supply this “umami” taste, you’ll be victorious in every vegan dish.

A.K.A. “The Bomb.”

This new seasoning from Trader Joe’s is one of the best ingredients ever for meeting this goal (no, they’re not paying me to say so). It is made from ground dried porcini and other mushrooms, plus garlic, onion, thyme, salt and some red pepper spice. I fell completely in love with this stuff last year at Thanksgiving, and I sometimes use it even in non-vegan dishes.

Ready? Let’s get cooking!


Ingredients

1 medium eggplant, sliced, salted and sweated

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 medium Yukon gold potatoes, with peels

1 medium sweet onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, rough chopped

1/4 head fresh cauliflower florets, rough chopped

1 large carrot, peeled and rough chopped

Several handfuls of washed kale leaves

Spice blend (listed below)

2 cups cooked lentils (I used a blend of red, brown and green)

28 oz. can crushed tomatoes

1/4 cup dry red wine

Béchamel or vegan alternative (recipe below)


Spice Blend

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. Spanish sweet or smoked paprika

1 tsp. dried oregano

1/2 tsp. garlic powder

1/2 tsp. onion powder

1/4 tsp. ground coriander

1/4 tsp. ground cayenne pepper


Vegan Béchamel

4 Tbsp. vegan butter*

4 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

2 1/2 cups plain, unsweetened almond milk

Kosher salt

Fresh grated nutmeg

1/4 tsp. white pepper

2 Tbsp. nutritional yeast flakes

1/2 tsp. Trader Joe’s “umami” seasoning (optional)

1/4 cup dried potato flakes* (if needed for thickening)

*Notes

Some vegan butter brands will work better than others in this recipe. For the roux that will be the base of a cream sauce, choose an oil-based option. Earth Balance brand used to be my go-to, but my new favorite is the Country Crock line of plant-based butters (they’re not paying me, either). In this recipe, I used the avocado oil version. It melts perfectly and has a pleasant, neutral flavor.

When purchasing potato flakes (or any other processed ingredient) for vegan recipes, take notice of the label to be sure they don’t have some hidden dairy ingredient. I’m partial to the “instant mashed potatoes” available at Whole Foods. There’s only one ingredient—dehydrated potatoes. I love when something is simple.


Instructions

Wash the eggplant and trim the stem end, but do not peel it. Place a double layer of paper towels on a rimmed cookie sheet and sprinkle it liberally with kosher salt. Slice the eggplant into 1/2″ thick rounds and arrange them in a single layer on the salted towel. Sprinkle salt over the tops of the slices. Place another double layer of paper towels over the top of the eggplant slices, then place another cookie sheet, weighted by a cast iron pan, over the top. Allow this to rest on the counter a couple of hours.

When you are ready to proceed, pre-heat the oven to 350° F. Wipe the excess salt from the eggplant slices. You might be shocked at the amount of moisture the salting step has removed. Brush (or spray) both sides of the slices with extra virgin olive oil and arrange them on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Grind some black pepper over them, and roast for about 30 minutes, turning once about halfway through. They will shrink considerably but that’s OK.

Scrub the potatoes clean and poke them all over with a fork. Microwave them for about 4 minutes, or until they are just tender enough to slice (not as tender as you’d serve). Cool, then slice them into rounds about 1/2” thick. This is a little thicker than I would slice them for a traditional meat-centric moussaka, but in this vegan version, I want them to provide a little extra body for the foundation of the casserole.

In a food processor with the chopping blade, add the rough chopped cauliflower and carrots. Pulse about 5 times, until vegetables have a coarse, uniform texture.

Place a large non-stick skillet over medium heat and add about 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the chopped onions and the processed carrot-cauliflower pieces. Stir and sauté while you process the kale.

Fill the food processor bowl with kale leaves, and pulse about 5 times until the kale is reduced to about half the original volume. The appearance of chopped parsley is just about right.

Add the chopped kale to the skillet and sauté the whole mixture about 3 minutes. Add the garlic, season with kosher salt, then add the spice mixture and cook another 2 minutes. Add the cooked lentils and the entire can of crushed tomatoes. Get every bit of flavor by “rinsing” the can with the red wine. Simmer on medium low heat about 10 minutes until liquid is reduced.

Assembling the Moussaka

Spray an oblong (9 x 13) glass baking dish with olive oil spray. Arrange the cooked potato slices in a single layer, placing them as close to each other as possible to  provide a good base for the casserole. Add about half of the sauce mixture and spread it evenly over the potatoes. Arrange the eggplant slices in a single layer, then top with the remaining sauce mixture. If you’re working ahead, you can pop this in the fridge for a day or two until you’re ready to add the vegan béchamel and bake the casserole. If you prefer a classic dairy béchamel, follow this recipe but with dairy butter and milk, and skip the nutritional yeast and umami seasoning. We usually toss on a handful of fresh parm-romano blend also. After baking, it should come out pretty much like this one:

Lentil moussaka with dairy bechamel

To make a vegan béchamel, begin by melting the vegan butter and cooking the flour in it until it becomes lightly golden and bubbly. Add the almond milk, then cook and whisk over medium heat several minutes until mixture begins to thicken. Add salt, fresh nutmeg, white pepper, nutritional yeast and umami seasoning. Spread over the layered casserole and bake at 350° F for about 40 minutes, or until you can see the inside sauce bubbling around the edges of the béchamel. Give it a couple minutes to cool and firm up, then dive right in.

My brand of almond milk was on the thin side and didn’t thicken as well as I’d expected. I resolved the viscosity issue by whisking in about 1/4 cup of dehydrated potato flakes. I’m a bread-making nerd, so I have such things on hand. Without it, I probably would have made flour or corn starch slurry to whisk into the sauce instead. But the potato trick worked like a charm, and it made kind of an “echo” of potato-ness from the bottom of the casserole. If your béchamel seems to be the correct consistency, this step would not be necessary, but still delicious.

This dish has become a “go-to” recipe for our Meatless Monday rotation, and my husband, Les, and I generally don’t mind having some dairy ingredients in the béchamel topping. Frankly, we prefer it because we love his DIY parm-romano cheese blend lavishly sprinkled on top. But we were delightfully surprised on Memorial Day weekend to hear from his adult daughter—Syd was planning to drive two hours into town for a visit and wondered if she could bring her boyfriend to meet us around midday the next day. Of course! Let’s plan on lunch while we’re at it. Normally, a bit more notice gives me greater confidence in preparing a completely plant-based meal, but as fate would have it, this lentil moussaka was already in my plan for the weekend. Coincidence? We don’t believe in coincidences in our house.

By the time Syd phoned us, I had already prepped the moussaka up to the point of adding the béchamel, so we made a last-minute decision to divide the 9 x 13 casserole into two smaller 8 x 8 casseroles—one with dairy béchamel and the other with a vegan alternative.

Dairy on the left, vegan on the right.

Side by side, you can see the slight difference between our two versions. Underneath the topping, they were exactly the same. The spices offered a nice complexity, and the texture of the lentils, cauliflower and kale made it feel substantial—all the things I described when we first talked about Meatless Monday.

Les is a great dad (and husband), and he gets pretty excited any time either of his kids pay a visit, and we were extra lucky that day because his adult son also happened to join us for our moussaka dinner. Alex came home unexpectedly from Hungary during the early weeks of the pandemic and having both of his kids with us at once was a real treat. Honestly, it was the first sit-down meal we’ve hosted for guests since New Year’s Eve—five whole months ago. For a couple of hours, life felt almost normal.

So excuse me forgetting, but I got a little sidetracked and missed taking pictures of the casserole just out of the oven or even at the table. One of the new things I’m learning during this pandemic is to pay closer attention to the people you love while they’re in front of you. If that means I miss a photo of the plated food—well, no big deal. I’ll update this post when I make it again one day. 😊

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Savory Smoky Baked Beans

Just about every baked bean recipe I’ve ever eaten has hit me a little too heavy on the sweet tooth. Do they really need to have brown sugar and honey and molasses and maple syrup? Geez, it hurts my teeth just thinking about it. My version has some sweetness, but it’s a deep, earthy kind of sweet, thanks to molasses, and balanced with only a bit of brown sugar. There’s dark-roast coffee, cumin, ancho chile, coriander and ginger, too—plenty of savory notes to keep these beans off the dessert end of the potluck table.

You could sauté the onions in olive oil and this recipe would make even a vegan happy. But don’t lament, carnivores. Your beloved bacon will feel right at home in this dish, too. Y’all go ahead and make it your own!

Ingredients

About 4 cups cooked pinto and great northern beans* (see notes)

2 Tbsp. bacon drippings (or extra virgin olive oil)

1 sweet onion, chopped

1 Tbsp. spicy coffee rub*

1 tsp. coarse kosher salt

8 oz. can tomato sauce

2 Tbsp. ketchup (Heinz organic made with sugar)

3 Tbsp. molasses

2 Tbsp. brown sugar

1 Tbsp. maple-flavored balsamic vinegar*

(Optional) chopped cooked bacon and/or browned meat*

*Notes

I cooked the beans from dry, which is easy to do after an overnight soak. For me, the texture of from-scratch beans is worth the minimal effort, and a lot cheaper. If you prefer, use two or three varieties of canned beans. You’ll need 3 cans, and you’ll want to drain and rinse them well before proceeding.

My recipe for spicy coffee rub follows, or substitute any pre-made spice blend that includes coffee, sugar and chili spices, but be mindful of the sodium content and adjust the recipe accordingly.

I’m a very devoted follower of flavored oils and vinegars, and I think the maple balsamic brings a nice maple flavor to these beans, without more “sweet.” Use any other dark balsamic you like (perhaps espresso or dark chocolate), or omit it altogether. It’s kind of like the cherry on top of a sundae—nice, but not necessary.

We had 3 slices of leftover cooked bacon from breakfast and about 1 cup cooked ground bison (a leftover from chili for hot dogs). Both found their way into the baked beans, and the dish was even more hearty and satisfying for it.

Instructions

Sauté onion in bacon drippings (or olive oil) until they’re slightly soft and translucent.

Add spicy coffee rub and salt, and cook until fragrant. Add tomato sauce, ketchup, molasses, brown sugar and maple balsamic vinegar. Cook until sugar is dissolved, and mixture is thick and syrupy.


Preheat oven to 350° F. 

Put prepared or canned beans in an oven-safe, lidded casserole. Pour sauce over beans and fold gently to combine. Bake about 45 minutes, until fully hot and bubbly. I left the lid on for most of the baking time, but removed it for the last 15 minutes. That dark, sticky crust just makes me so happy, and I can’t wait to eat the leftovers cold from the fridge.

Spicy Coffee Rub – my take on a Bobby Flay recipe

Makes about 1 cup

1/4 cup ancho chile powder

1/4 cup finely ground dark roast coffee*

2 Tbsp. sweet Spanish paprika

2 Tbsp. dark brown sugar

1 Tbsp. dry mustard

1 Tbsp. ground black pepper

1 Tbsp. ground coriander seed*

2 tsp. ground ginger

2 tsp. ground cayenne pepper (optional to taste)

1 tsp. ground cumin

1 tsp. dried thyme leaves

1 tsp. kosher salt*

*Notes

The coffee should be ground as finely as powder, not just ground for coffee. If you have a spice grinder, that’s the best way to achieve the proper grind texture.

Coriander is the seed form of cilantro, but the taste is not similar. You can find it pre-ground at the market, but I much prefer the flavor of freshly ground seeds for this rub. I use a mortar and pestle to crush the seeds, but you could also use a spice grinder, as used for the coffee.

I keep the salt to a minimum in this spice rub recipe to allow more flexibility in its use. If you want a more intense flavor when you use the rub, you don’t end up making your end dish too salty.

Instructions

Combine all ingredients and keep in a tightly covered jar for up to four months.

Use it as a dry rub on steak or ribs before grilling, add a tablespoon to your favorite chili recipe or mixed in with your meat for burgers or tacos. Obviously, use it also in this recipe for savory baked beans.

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Chili for Hot Dogs

As I was jotting down the ingredients I used in this chili, I almost felt that I should put an asterisk next to every spice ingredient. Taste is subjective, and it seems no culinary divide is greater than the one created by spicy heat. Some people love it (hear, hear), some can’t tolerate it at all and others want a little kick as long as they don’t feel too much burn.

If you make some version of this chili, use the level of heat that makes sense for you and whomever else you’re feeding. My husband and I are so much on the same page when it comes to heat, and we are quick to admit, we want a little burn. We might pay a price for it tomorrow, but that’s a consequence we will be willing to accept. Every. Single. Time. If you’re shaking your head “no,” you might find some of the spice notes helpful for adjusting the amounts to your personal taste, while still enjoying plenty of flavor.

There’s no need to spend extra for packaged “chili powder.” Mix and match spices you already have and come up with a winner.

Chipotle

Made of dried and smoked jalapeno chiles, this is a smoky-style, medium heat spice. I usually don’t even think of this spice as being “hot,” because I’m mainly captivated by the smoke. But it does bring some heat, so if you’re squeamish, skip this one and look at ancho or cumin instead.

Cumin

This spice is made from seeds, not chile peppers, and it’s common to various Latin cuisines as well as some Indian and Northern African cooking. The flavor is warm and gently smoky. “Comforting” is a good word for this spice. I adore it in fried breakfast potatoes, and it finds its way into every kind of chili I make. Cumin doesn’t have heat, but it plays so nicely with hot spices, it’s never far off in recipes with chile spices.

Cayenne

No doubt, this is a speecy-spicy one! Cayenne is a long, skinny red pepper, the variety used widely in Cajun cuisine, and the main ingredient in popular bottled hot sauces, including Tabasco and Frank’s original “red hot” sauce, as well as Texas Pete, which doesn’t hail from Texas, but Winston-Salem, NC (go figure). It’s not as hot as habanero or ghost peppers (not even close on the Scoville heat scale), but it’s fair warning to say that if you can’t stand the heat, you should get the heck out of cayenne’s kitchen.

Ancho

Made of dried and smoked poblano chiles, this one has a little heat, but is mainly smoky and fruity, especially if the seeds are removed before grinding it into powder. Ancho chiles are a favorite of celebrity chef Bobby Flay, who puts it in nearly everything. It’s a very balanced chile flavor, and though it isn’t listed as an ingredient in my chili for hot dogs, you might find it a good substitute for the chipotle if you like smokiness and peppers with a little less kick.

Paprika

This is an overly general name for a spice that varies a great deal from bottle to bottle. Some paprika is smoked, some is sweet, some is hot—it’s just all over the place. If you do an online search for “what pepper is used for paprika,” you’ll find everything from red bell pepper to cayenne, so it’s clearly a bit of a gamble. The variety I used in this recipe is specifically labeled “sweet Spanish paprika,” and I appreciate that because it helps me know what to expect. It is light and kind of fruity, with the tiniest amount of smoke (probably on the red bell pepper end of the paprika spectrum), and it adds bright color and a pleasant sweet pepper flavor without bringing heat. A bottle labeled “hot Hungarian paprika” would turn this chili into something totally different, so take notice of the differences.

Wait, what about plain old “chili powder?”

Frankly, my dear, there is no such thing. “Chili powder” is a generic term used by every spice company out there, and what’s in it is anyone’s guess. Sure, you could look at the label ingredients, but they are usually suspiciously vague—a blend of “red chile powder” (okay, but which chile?), herbs and spices (again, which ones?), plus a whole lotta salt and usually some other unnecessary ingredients with long, unpronounceable names. Personally, I don’t touch the stuff because it presumes to know what my flavor and sodium levels should be. I’ll decide what goes into my chili, thank you very much, and hopefully this quick little chili tutorial will empower you to do the same.

Ingredients

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1/2 lb. lean ground meat*

1/2 cup yellow onion, finely chopped

2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar or red wine vinegar

1/4 cup water*

8 oz. can tomato sauce

Kosher or sea salt to taste

Spices

1/2 tsp. each ground black pepper, ground chipotle, cumin, sweet paprika, garlic powder, onion powder

1/4 tsp. ground cayenne pepper, if you’re living on the edge

*Notes

For this batch of chili, I used 90% lean ground bison. Beef is an easy go-to, and it would also be just fine with ground turkey.

Feel free to substitute beer for the water, if you wish, as my husband does with his famous Super Bowl chili. (I hope that wasn’t a secret, Babe!)

Instructions

Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Swirl in olive oil, then add ground meat, onions, vinegar and water all together. Cooking the meat in the water rather than browning it first will result in the fine texture that’s perfect for topping a hot dog. Stir the meat mixture frequently as it cooks, until the water has completely evaporated. Season with salt and pepper, then add tomato sauce and spices. Cook and stir several more minutes, until liquid reduces and chili thickens to your liking. I like this kind of chili to be on the thicker side, so it stays on the dog without making the bun soggy.

The chili is good on its own, but I throw on more onion just because.

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It’s pronounced “YEAR-Oh.”

That was the matter-of-fact statement printed on some of the commemorative T-shirts for our local Greek festival a few years back. It was supposed to end the controversy of the traditional handheld pita sandwich, which some people (including my NYC-born husband) call “JYE-row.”

Let the dispute rage—however you say it, these things are absolutely delicious and I’ve only recently learned to make them at home. This time of year, my community would normally be gearing up for the annual Greek festival, a three-day event filled with traditional food and music and dance and laughter and oh-so-heavenly Greek pastries—but alas, we are not doing anything “normal” this year, are we? The festival, I’m told by an insider, will be pushed back to at least September, if they are able to do it at all with whatever social distancing guidelines might be in place months from now.

To help temper our collective craving for Greek deliciousness, I’ve decided to share a few of my own recipes, including my take on a “YEAR-Oh” recipe I received quite by accident. My aunt had texted me in search of a good but easy flatbread recipe, and after I figured out she wasn’t referring to the pizza crust-type of flatbread, but the handheld pita-type, I asked what she planned to do with them. “Gyros,” she texted.

Hold the phone—what? She makes her own gyros? This is one of my favorite Mediterranean food items, a primary reason for my love of the Greek festival, and yet it had not occurred to me to try to make them at home. Thankfully, our chance conversation about flatbread has changed all that.

This recipe for gyro meat is remarkably simple to make, and would be delicious with just onions, garlic, rosemary and oregano, as it was given to me, but my husband and I really like a good bit of spice, so I substituted a blend of other Mediterranean spices that had worked very well on some lamb chops a few months ago, and guess what? Winner, winner—gyro dinner. For good measure, I’m also sharing my easy, four-ingredient recipe for tzatziki sauce and the homemade soft pita breads that are in my regular rotation.

You can use ground beef or ground lamb in this recipe, or some combination of both, as I did. One of the keys of the recipe is processing the ground meat into an ultra-smooth texture before cooking it. Skipping this step will leave you with something more like meatloaf or burgers, so don’t be tempted to pass on it. If you have time to chill the cooked gyro meat overnight, you’ll be able to slice it ultra-thin for a really authentic result. Authentic enough, anyway, to hold us over until September.

Opa!


Ingredients

1.5 pounds ground beef or lamb or both (at least 85% lean)

1 cup very finely chopped onion

4 cloves garlic, very finely minced

Spice blend

These spices were an excellent combination of flavor for my gyros.

1/2 tsp. cumin

1/2 tsp. ground coriander

1/4 tsp. dried Mediterranean oregano leaves

1/4 tsp. ground cardamom

1/4 tsp. garlic powder

1 tsp. kosher salt

1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

For serving

Soft pita breads*, tzatziki sauce, fresh tomatoes, chopped red onion

*These are delicious on my homemade soft pita breads, or you may use something simple and ready-made, like the garlic naan breads available at Trader Joe’s.

Hubby suggested pepperoncini on the finished sandwich. Excellent call!

Instructions

Combine meat, onions, garlic and spices in a large bowl. Refrigerate mixture at least 2 hours. Working in batches, process meat mixture until it’s smooth and homogenized. If you’re cooking and serving right away, shape mixture into a compact oval-shaped mound in a cast iron skillet, and bake at 325° F for about 1 hour, until meat is fully cooked and very firm, even slightly dry. If you’re serving right away, cut the meat into thin slices and enjoy on warm pita breads with your favorite toppings. Keep scrolling for work-ahead tips.


If you have time to work ahead, mound the processed meat onto a large piece of plastic wrap, and roll it up as tightly as you can, twisting the ends (similar to a sausage chub) so that the meat mixture is as compact as possible. Chill for a few hours, up to overnight, then proceed with the recipe.


After baking, cool and chill meat overnight again for ultra-thin slices. To reheat chilled gyro slices, grill on an oiled skillet until edges are lightly crispy.

Tzatziki Sauce – a must with your homemade gyros!

Just four ingredients (plus salt) make an awesome and authentic tzatziki sauce. In a pinch, you could substitute sour cream for the yogurt.

1 Persian cucumber*, peeled, seeded and finely chopped or grated

A couple pinches of kosher salt

1 cup plain Greek yogurt (or substitute sour cream in a pinch)

2 cloves garlic, crushed and finely chopped

1 tsp. fresh dill leaves, finely chopped

*English or slicing cucumbers work in this recipe, too. I like the smaller size of the Persian cukes because one is just right for many of my recipes, and I don’t have to wrap up leftovers. You want about 1/3 cup of cucumber. Whichever type you use, be sure to remove the seeds and excess moisture.

Line a small custard cup with a paper towel. Add the chopped or grated cucumber and stir with a sprinkling of kosher salt. Wrap the paper towel over the cucumbers and allow this to sit in the fridge for 30 minutes to draw out and absorb excess moisture.

Combine cucumbers with yogurt, garlic and dill. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve with gyros.

Somebody please give me a spoon!

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Low carb version. He had to have just one more bite, Even Nilla wants some!