When it comes to Canadian cuisine, poutine, Tim Hortons, and maple syrup all spring to mind. But unless you hail from Nova Scotia, or you’re a savvy visitor to the region, you likely don’t associate meat, tomato, and onion-filled pita with our polite neighbors to the north. That’s how Halifax has been able to keep one of its best local bites—donairs—a virtual secret outside the region. The wrap may resemble a gyro, but the spiced meat, and the accompanying sweet sauce it’s served with, are purely Canadian inventions.
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Cooking dinner shouldn't be complicated
Go into any pizza shop in Nova Scotia, and you’ll likely find donairs on the menu. The dish became popular in the second half of the twentieth century after restaurateur Peter Kamoulakos opened a pizza shop, in which he hoped to share food from his family’s native Greece. The restaurant served traditional gyros, but Halifax wasn’t a huge fan of lamb meat and tzatziki sauce. Plus, lamb was expensive. So Kamoulakos subbed beef in his recipe and started experimenting with a new condiment—one that incorporated sweetened condensed milk, garlic powder, and a little white vinegar. The sauce made the revised gyro an overnight sensation, one that was soon copied in diners and pizza shops throughout the region. When someone asked what Kamoulakos called the sauce-dribbled wraps, he took inspiration from the rotisserie machine used to make doner kebab. Just like that, the donair was born.
While we wouldn’t discourage going to a Halifax pizzeria for an authentic donair, there’s no need to journey to Canada to try the dish. A rotisserie slicer isn’t mandatory either. To make donairs at home, all you need is beef, seasonings, pita, and of course, some condensed milk.
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Starting with a large steel bowl and a steady work surface, combine a teaspoon each of salt, cayenne pepper, oregano, garlic powder, onion powder, black pepper, and paprika. Mix to evenly distribute the spices. Then add a pound of lean ground beef to your bowl and start messaging the spices into the meat. While you’re incorporating the spices, knead the meat as if you were kneading dough. This will help the beef hold together as well as work the flavor of the spices deeper into meat.
If you’ve never made kebab meat before, this next instruction might seem a little strange. However, to improve the texture of the meat, you’ll need to throw it. Gather your beef into a ball, pick it up, and chuck it as hard as you can into the bowl. Then knead, and throw it again. The steel bowl, combined with the force exerted while throwing, will yield a more tender bite and a more easily sliced final product.
Once the meat has been spiced, tossed, and kneaded, shape it into a long log, place it on a sheet pan, and cook it in the oven at 350 degrees for an hour and fifteen minutes. You’ll want to turn it halfway through to ensure even cooking.
Just before the meat is done, go ahead and stir up the sauce. Take a can of sweetened condensed milk and add a teaspoon of garlic powder. Then, one tablespoon at a time, whisk in white vinegar to taste. The vinegar will help the sauce to further thicken, which is why you’ll want to stir and wait a sec before adding more. Feel free to halve the formula if you don’t foresee needing an entire can’s worth of sauce; here’s a simple donair sauce recipe for reference.
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After the donair log has been sliced to your desired thickness, the meat can be distributed among warm pita, and served with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, or any other topping you might desire. The warm, salty, spicy meat combined with the cool sweet sauce is a great way to unwind after a long week. And even though the dish feels special, it’s not actually hard to put together. Donairs could easily become a regular addition in your weekday meal rotation, or an occasional treat used to impress friends and family. Pair with some fries and cheese curds, and you’ll have a dinner that’d make Canada proud.
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