Ah, the gyro. A stacked rotating pile of thinly sliced meat, either lamb, pork, beef, or some combination thereof, with latter-day renditions that include chicken...my personal favorite.
I had my first gyro from a food stall in Faneuil Hall, Boston. The owner offered only meat (hers was a proprietary blend of lamb, pork and beef) and chicken from her 10x10-foot booth. Those magic vertical spits dazzled with golden juices and bits of char from the cooking lamps. Coupled with her scrumptious tzatziki, fresh tomatoes, sliced red onion and fresh parsley, all wrapped in a warm, soft, puffy pita, it was truly a little bit of heaven right here on earth.
Of course I've heard it called "JIGH-ro," "YEAR-ro" and other variations, but it is correctly pronounced “GHEE-ro” in Greek and comes from the Greek word “gheereezo,” which means to turn.
When you stack the marinaded meat upright, the layers meld together as they cook, then you just cut off paper-thin slices and add to a pita, topped with the veggies noted above.
Granted, it doesn't turn, but this homemade "spit" works perfectly for making Chicken Gyros. Roasted onions on the base pick up flavors of the marinade and take the dish to a new level.
Gyro is the poster child of Greek fast food, even though it may or may not be 100% Greek. It has a surprisingly long and, pun intended, rotating history. The gyro as we know it more or less today arrived in Greece in 1922, along with many refugees from the Greco-Turkish War (1921-1922).
Legend has it that the best gyro spit masters were Armenian. As the refugees began to settle in their newfound homeland, many became merchants. They opened shops, many small holes-in-the wall on every street corner selling gyro.
After WWII (1939-1945), the gyro travelled west following the immigration patterns of the Greeks themselves, so shops began popping up across Europe, in the United States and in Australia. It is basically one of the first global fast foods, although that is my label because most shops were mom-and-pop run.There are other theories as to the origins of this most delicious wrap. By some accounts, gyro is the descendant of a long and old family tradition of skewered meat feasts, one with roots that stretch back to the time of Alexander the Great and his returning armies, whose soldiers were known to skewer and roast various cuts of meat on long, swordlike blades over an open fire.
For me personally, gyro remains a steadfast symbol of Greek casual dining and street fare.
NOTE: the original recipe I found suggested that a couple of wood skewers anchored in a slice of onion could work as a makeshift spit...after numerous tumbles in the oven...half of the tower staying in the pan, the other distributed throughout the bottom of the oven (and thus ruined), my sweetie was inspired to create this clever set-up as my spit.
A quick visit to the local True Value was all it took for the perfect Tommy-inspired spit. Yes, that is a really big nail and it works brilliantly.
In a large bowl, combine marinade ingredients and stir well.
In a half gallon sized ziplock, place a trimmed chicken thigh and pound until about 1/2" thick. Add to the bowl with marinade and continue with the next thigh, until all are pounded to 1/2" thick.
Still well to cover each piece of meat with marinade. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour, but overnight is better.
Preheat oven to 400ºF. Place single rack on oven's lowest level.
Shred cucumber, squeezing out any excess liquid with a clean dish towel.
Place in a medium bowl and combine remaining tzatziki ingredients and stir well. Cover and refrigerate at least 30 minutes.
In a cast iron pan, place the Tommy-inspired "spit" with a 1" thick piece of onion at bottom. Skewer the chicken thighs individually, rotating each one 90 degrees. Top with a second 1" slice of onion and sprinkle remaining onion slices or wedges around the tower (I like to add an extra sliced onion because they taste wonderful with the meat).
If the thighs are exceptionally large, I fold and double spear them...and don't waste any of the marinade, lay it on thick when spearing and slap any extra around the tower.
Bake for 1.5-2 hours, until internal temperature reaches 165ºF. Let sit for 10 minutes.
Carve off slices of chicken and serve with a bit of cooked onion on warm pita. Top with raw (or pickled) onion slices, chopped tomato and tzatziki sauce.