Venison Keftedes with Tzatziki

This meal is the result of two competing desires. The resolution of an epic struggle today between my compulsion to use up all the groceries in my fridge and what felt like the world’s strongest craving for Greek take-out from the restaurant down the street.

I was doing my Sunday chores like a responsible adult when I started craving pita bread and schawarma from Arpeggio Grill, the little Mediterranian spot down the street from my apartment complex. Their pita is so soft and light it practically floats up to your mouth, and it’s the perfect vehicle for spicy lamb.

My desire for pita was strong. However, we had a bunch of extra food in the house, and I just couldn’t bear to buy more while so many groceries went unused on the shelf. So I decided to approximate the pita and schawarma lunch special from Arpeggio Grill using ingredients that I had on hand in the kitchen.

Recreating their pita was pretty straightforward. I used the recipe and method from one of my favorite learn-to-bake blogs, “The Fresh Loaf.” That blog gives a comprehensive breakdown of each ingredient, plus specific step by step instruction with pictures. Perfect for a novice pita-maker like me.

To complement the keftedes and pita bread, I made tzatziki with an Indian cucumber from My Father’s Farm. Indian cucumbers are big, yellow vegetables that taste the same as green, English cucumbers. I like using them in recipes like raita or tzatziki because their bulbous shape yields a bit more flesh than green cucumbers once they are seeded.

c. swanksalot, http://www.flickr.com/photos/swanksalot/. Licensed for reuse under Creative Commons.

The schawarma portion of Arpeggio Grill’s lunch plate was more difficult to make at home than the pita or tzatziki, since the dish must be cooked on a rotissierie– not standard issue for any apartment kitchen I’ve ever seen! Since actual schawarma was out of the question, I turned to traditional fried meatballs called “keftedes” to recreate the Mediterranean flavors I was craving. I used ground venison hunted by my dad for the keftedes, along with eggs from Ringger farms and herbs from Pure Luck and My Father’s Farm. If you don’t have access to deer from a hunter, ground venison is available in Austin at Whole Foods or you can substitute a mixture of ground lamb and pork.

Although cooking three Mediterranean dishes from scratch was more time consuming than calling for take-out, I’m glad I put in the effort. I bought myself a big chunk of room in my crisper drawer, and I can rest easy tonight knowing that home cooked leftovers mean my lunch for tomorrow is already prepared!

Venison Keftedes (yields about 30, golf ball-sized meatballs)
3 slices bread
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic
3 tablespoons minced fresh basil
3 tablespoons minced fresh mint
1 tablespoon dried oregano (3 tablespoons if using fresh)
1 pound ground venison, can subtitute pork, turkey or beef
1/2 cup millk
2 eggs, beaten
Canola oil, for frying
All-purpose flour, for frying

In a food processor fitted with the blade attachment, combine the first six ingredients. Process for 3-4 minutes, until mixture is uniform and all the herbs are distributed evenly through the bread crumbs. In a large bowl, mix together the bread crumb mixture, ground meat, milk and beaten eggs. Shape the meat into meat balls and cook by frying or baking, instructions below.

Frying method: Heat an inch or two of oil in a deep skillet until it reaches 375 degrees, or a bit of the meat mixture sizzles in the hot oil. Line a plate with a few paper towels. Dredge the meatballs generously in all-purpose flour and cook them a few at a time in the hot oil until they are firm and deep brown, turning often. Scoop them out with a slotted spoon and set them on the towel-lined plate to drain.

Baking method: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place rolled meatballs on a broiler pan and bake for 25-30 minutes, until they are no longer pink in the center. Serve keftedes with tzatziki and warm pita bread.

Tzatziki (yields 2 cups)
1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded and shredded
7 ounces Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon white vinegar (use lemon juice if you have that on hand. I didn’t)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon minced fresh basil
1 tablespoon minced fresh mint
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper

Mix the shredded cucumber and greek yogurt together in a small bowl, then transfer the mixture to a paper towel-lined strainer. Set the strainer over the bowl and let the mixture drain for an hour. Discard the liquid.

In a food processor, combine yogurt mixture with remaining ingredients. Process for a few minutes until tzatziki is creamy and well combined. Chill for at least an hour before serving.

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