Street food at home: grilled lamb-stuffed pitas from America's Test Kitchen

Sep 29, 2017

Just in time to close out the late summer grilling season, America's Test Kitchen presents a recipe destined to become a new favorite for backyard grill enthusiasts. We're talking about Grilled Lamb Stuffed Pitas, lamb sandwiches seasoned with herbs and warm spices, pressed between pita rounds, and grilled. Inspired by Middle Eastern arayes, these pitas offer a flavorful, juicy, street food–style alternative to the everyday burger on a bun. Managing Producer Sally Swift talked with Bridget Lancaster, host of America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country, about the inspiration and process for their recipe.

Sally Swift: I was digging through the Cook's Country magazine the other day and saw this recipe for grilled lamb-stuffed pitas, which is a street food from Lebanon. It has me bewitched. Essentially, you're cooking ground lamb inside a pita bread on a grill, correct?

Bridget Lancaster: That's right. The idea is you take a pita bread and slice a little pocket, stuff it full of ground lamb and spices like cumin and cinnamon, some parsley and onion, and grill it. The juices from the lamb start to be absorbed by the pita which makes it crisp, succulent, and juicy. We found this recipe in a few Lebanese cookbooks; it’s also popular in Syria and other parts of the Middle East as a street food. It’s easy to make. But, of course, in the test kitchen, we try to make things foolproof, so that's what we wanted to do.

SS: One of the things you do that I thought was ingenious is you take a piece of pita and a pair of scissors, then you cut the edges to turn it into, essentially, two thin pieces of pita. It’s almost, to my mind, like tortillas.

BL: Exactly. People that can't see what we're talking about right now, picture a quesadilla. You've got two thin pieces of bread – in this case it's a half pita – with all of the fillings stuffed in-between, and it’s cooked with that raw meat and everything else right inside. So, you're right, that was the most foolproof way to get the pitas to split evenly. Also, when we just cut a little slit in one side, we couldn't get a lot of filling in. In the test kitchen, we really like lamb. We wanted to pack as much in there as we possibly could.

SS: Then you take this sandwich that you've spread with raw lamb and spices in it, and take it to the grill. Tell me how you grill it.

BL: A lot of the recipes that we found just called for "grill the sandwich." There weren't any specifics.

SS: Not a lot of detail?

BL: Exactly. When you think about street food, they're just throwing food on top of an open grill, and you don't really pay attention to the heat of the grill. Basically, you cook it until the filling is cooked through. However, we found that a medium high grill was perfect, because it really toasted the bread. Anything lower than that, it dried out the bread before it got toasted. The key was starting the grill with the lid down. You put the sandwiches on a medium-high fire, on charcoal or gas, and you put the lid down, about 7 to 10 minutes on each side.

SS: Are you doing this over direct heat or indirect heat?

BL: Over direct heat. For a gas grill, you would turn all your burners to medium-high, and put it right on there. What’s great is you can do a dozen at a time if you have a big grill. You can make these by assembling them ahead of time if you have a party. Just keep throwing them on the grill, and as they come off, they're super crisp. You've got a little bit of that lamb juice just leaking out of the sides. Serve it with a little bit of yogurt sauce, and people love it.

SS: It's such a crazy idea, because you're doing a grilled cheese sandwich type thing on the grill with that beautiful lamb dripping through. What do you serve these sandwiches with?

BL: There's an easy yogurt sauce to make. Start with Greek yogurt because it's nice and thick; it’s not too runny and won’t fall off the sandwiches as you dip them in the sauce. Mix the yogurt with herbs, fresh mint, lemon juice for brightness, tahini, and olive oil. Make it the day before so the flavors can start to develop and keep it in the fridge. It’s great to serve the grilled pitas with it.

SS: Have you ever tried to make this on the stovetop instead of the grill?

BL: We sure have. I make it in a nonstick skillet. Unfortunately, it's just one at a time when you do it that way, but it's a great way to make them inside. And you don't have to heat up the whole grill.