A summery grilled chicken inspired by Greek memories
When I first moved to New York for culinary school after college, I happened to land in the neighborhood of Astoria, Queens, once home to the largest population of Greeks in the world outside of Greece. All my landlords over the five years and six apartments I lived there were Greek. My closest grocery store was Titan, a Greek specialty store that sold the largest variety of feta and olives I’ve ever seen still to this day. My favorite bakery down the block, the sadly now-shuttered Artopolis, imported sheep’s butter from Greece to make its baklava and galaktoboureko, custard squares sandwiched with filo that I’d often eat for breakfast on my way to work. And when I wanted to go out to eat, the easiest spots to get to were all Greek, particularly the neighborhood gem Taverna Kyclades with its excellent Greek salad, lemon potatoes and whole grilled fish. Life there was, literally, Greek to me.
All those years in proximity to amazing Greek food left a lasting impression. Yet since moving to Los Angeles, Greek food has been more difficult to come by. That particular eastern Mediterranean style of cooking that encompasses lightly charred and skewered meats, pickles and yogurt dips, flatbreads and vegetable purees, is easier to come by through Persian, Lebanese and Armenian cuisines, which are abundant here. Of course, there is Papa Cristo’s, the famous Greek taverna opened since 1948, where my call is usually the half chicken or lamb souvlaki. And in Silver Lake, Greekman’s, on the site of the short-lived deli Freedman’s, gives the cuisine a more modern spin than old-school joints, turning out fantastic grilled octopus and lamb chops with tzatziki to go with pillowy pita.
But it was on a recent trip to Chicago that I found my holy grail of a Greek restaurant, along with my favorite new dish. On the advice of a friend’s mother who grew up there, I went to Athenian Room, in the city’s Lincoln Park neighborhood; it’s been there for 50 years. “You HAVE to get the kalamata chicken,” she told me. And I do as I’m told.
When the kalamata chicken came to my table, it was a glorious half-bird atop a pile of sizzling-hot steak-cut french fries. The chicken was exceptionally juicy, its skin still bubbling from the grill, and it seemed to be drenched in red wine vinegar, the acid cutting through the fatty fries underneath beautifully. As I ate the dish, some fries were still crisp while others were soggy from the chicken juices; I liked them both. The memory of that dish stuck with me throughout the rest of my trip, and I knew that when I got back home, I had to re-create it for myself.
But rather than try to truly re-create something so perfect — a trap many chefs and laypeople fall into when trying to capture food through memory — I decided to adapt a recipe I knew by heart to the flavors of Greece. I started with Cornell chicken, invented by poultry science professor Robert Baker during his tenure at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Chicken is coated in a dressing made with so much vinegar and salt that it can only marinate for a couple of hours lest the meat become literally pickled. But all that vinegar and salt serves a purpose, acting like a super-brine that gives the meat incredible tenderness, allowing it to stay juicy while cooking on a grill. Included in the marinade is an egg, which emulsifies the rest of the dressing ingredients and allows it to cling to the chicken like cream. Once you grill the chicken, the egg helps keep the marinade on the chicken, keeping all the seasoning where you want them. You’ve never had a better chicken.
So for my spin, I replaced the white vinegar with red wine vinegar, used a lot of dried oregano and added a lot more garlic. Adding lemon zest really amped up the marinade, so when the chicken is grilled, the lemon’s bright acidity is balanced beautifully with lightly blistered bitterness from the charring of the flame. And because I grill this chicken, I keep the bird as halves, as an ode to Athenian Room but also because it’s just easier to maneuver than a whole chicken, which can feel like trying to wield a lubed-up bowling ball, and less tedious than individual pieces, especially when trying to feed a crowd.
The best part is that this chicken is the most low-effort recipe you’ll ever make, no fussy chopping or cutting necessary. The marinade is blended quickly, then poured over the chicken with no other ingredients needed. And though this chicken is made for an outdoor grill, it’s perfectly adaptable to broiling and roasting inside if, like me, you don’t have outdoor space … or a grill.
This chicken is stellar served over French fries, like at Athenian Room, but I implore you to buy a good frozen brand instead of trying to make them yourself. Making French fries from scratch at home is for the birds — but not this bird. You’re using these fries as a bed for hot chicken juices, intentionally getting them a little soggy, so why do that to meticulously cut-and-fried scratch spuds? No, using frozen fries is the move and makes this dish come together so easily. It also captures the spirit and ease that makes Greek food so appealing.
When I eat this tangy, herby chicken piled atop crispy fries now, I’m immediately transported, not to the Mediterranean coast in a white-and-blue villa but to the busy and loud corners of Astoria — via side trips to L.A. and Chicago — where my indoctrination into the wonders of Greek food began.
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