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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

This cauliflower shawarma reaches for spring

A vegetarian take on the Middle Eastern dish, this recipe straddles the seasons.

By Melissa Clark

These earliest days of spring are always the most frustrating, at least when it comes to dinner. Although the weather is getting milder and there’s that distinct earthy-sharp scent wafting through my Brooklyn farmers’ market, the stalls remain largely a barren field of potato-beige and onion skin-brown, with any leafy green bounty still many weeks away.

By this time of year, though, I’ve grown weary of my cold-weather roster of soups, stews and braises. March is when I start to cook brighter, tangier dishes, even if the winter ingredients I’m using haven’t changed at all. Parsnips, onions, carrots, cabbage and cauliflower are still on the menu, but their preparations are a little fresher.

And so it goes with this vegetarian take on shawarma, which walks the line between being cozy and effervescently springy.

Instead of the usual lamb, chicken or turkey, this shawarma variation consists of cauliflower and onions, roasted until caramelized and tender. A sprinkling of coriander, cumin and paprika — the same spices used to marinate shawarma — is added to the vegetables, imbuing them with a pungent scent.

If you served the spiced vegetables as a side dish with chicken or sausages, you’d get a meal perfectly suited for the snowiest winter evening. But paired with a lemony tahini spiked with hot sauce, and topped with juicy cucumbers, tomatoes and briny olives, you have something that feels like it’s dreaming of summer.

This recipe makes just enough for a pair of hungry diners. If you want to double it, use two pans, dividing the vegetables evenly between them. Then add a few extra minutes onto the roasting time. Properly crisp-edged vegetables need room to brown, and two pans of food in your oven require more cooking time than just one.

The sauce smeared onto the different shawarma iterations can vary by region. Sometimes it’s made up of yogurt, and sometimes of tahini. In Lebanon, it’s a thick, garlicky emulsion called toum. I took the tahini route, but feel free to swap things around.

The same goes for assembling your plate. You can tuck everything into a pita, wrap it in flatbread or just serve the bread on the side. That way, your loved ones can choose the exact ratio of vegetables to sauce to bread, and make a meal that feels the most like spring.

Cauliflower shawarma with spicy tahini

In this vegetarian take on shawarma, the usual spiced lamb, chicken or turkey is replaced with cauliflower florets and onion wedges that have been tossed with a classic combination of cumin, paprika and coriander, then roasted until browned, fragrant and very tender. A hot sauce-spiked tahini served alongside lends creaminess and heat. To serve it, you can tuck everything into a pita or flatbread, or keep the bread on the side and let everyone assemble their own sandwiches at the table. Chopped cucumber, tomatoes and olives are optional, but they add a juicy brightness to contrast with the aromatic, roasted flavors.

Yield: 2 servings

Total time: 45 minutes

For the Cauliflower:

5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed

1 1/4 teaspoons ground cumin

1 1/4 teaspoons sweet paprika

3/4 teaspoon fine sea or table salt, plus more as needed

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Pinch of ground cayenne

1 large head cauliflower (about 2 1/2 pounds), trimmed and cut into bite-size florets

1 large red onion, cut into 1/4-inch wedges

Pita or flatbread, for serving

1/4 cup coarsely chopped parsley, plus more for serving

For the Spicy Tahini Sauce:

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, plus more to taste

1 to 2 teaspoons harissa paste or other hot sauce, or a large pinch of Urfa or Aleppo pepper, plus more to taste

1 fat garlic clove, finely grated, passed through a press or minced

1/4 teaspoon fine sea or table salt

1/3 cup tahini

1/3 cup ice water, plus more as needed

Diced tomato, cucumber and olives, for serving

1. Arrange racks in the upper and lower thirds of your oven. Heat oven to 425 degrees.

2. Prepare the cauliflower: In a large bowl, whisk together olive oil, cumin, paprika, salt, coriander, turmeric, black pepper and cayenne. Add cauliflower and onion, and toss until well coated. Spread mixture in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet.

3. Roast vegetables on the top oven rack until they are golden brown, slightly crisp and tender, 30 to 40 minutes, stirring once or twice. If the vegetables look dry as they roast, drizzle with a little more olive oil.

4. As they cook, prepare the tahini sauce: Whisk together lemon juice, 1 teaspoon harissa, garlic and salt in a small bowl, and let sit for a minute or two to mellow the garlic. Whisk in tahini. Whisk in ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the sauce is smooth and thin enough to drizzle. You may not need all of the water or you may need to add a little more: Tahini brands vary a lot. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more harissa, lemon juice and salt if you like. The sauce should taste zippy and creamy.

5. Warm the pitas or flatbread by placing them directly on the bottom oven rack during the last 5 minutes as the vegetables roast. (Or you can warm the bread on another baking pan if that’s easier for you.)

6. Scatter parsley on top of the roasted vegetables and serve with warm pitas, tahini sauce, chopped tomato, cucumber and olives.

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