This cauliflower shawarma is reaching for spring

Those first days of spring are always the most frustrating, at least when it comes to dinner. Though the weather is mildening and that distinct earthy-sharp scent wafts through my Brooklyn farmers’ market, the stalls remain mostly a barren field of potato beige and onion-skin brown, with any green leaf bounty many weeks away.

This time of year, however, I’ve grown weary of my cold-weather list of soups, stews, and pot roasts. In March I’ll start cooking lighter, spicier dishes, although the winter ingredients I use 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 version of shawarma, which walks the line between cozy and bubbly spring-like.

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

Serve the seasoned veggies as a side dish with chicken or sausage for a meal that’s perfect for the snowiest winter evening. But paired with a lemony tahini with hot sauce and topped with succulent cucumbers, tomatoes and salty olives, you have something that feels like dreaming of summer.

This recipe is just enough for two hungry guests. If you want to double it, use two pans and spread the veggies evenly on them. Then add a few extra minutes to the roasting time. Really crispy vegetables need room to brown, and two pans of food in your oven require more cooking time than just one.

The sauce slathered on the different iterations of shawarma may vary by region. Sometimes it’s made of yogurt and sometimes tahini. In Lebanon, it’s a thick, garlic-like emulsion called toum. I took the tahini route, but feel free to switch things up.

The same goes for mounting your plate. You can stuff everything in a pita, wrap it in flatbread, or just serve the bread as a side dish. That way, your loved ones can dial in the exact ratio of veggies to sauce to bread and create a meal that feels most like spring.

Cauliflower shawarma with spicy tahini

By Melissa Clark

In this vegetarian version of shawarma, the usual seasoned lamb, chicken or turkey is replaced with cauliflower florets and onion wedges, tossed with a classic combination of cumin, paprika and coriander, then roasted until browned, fragrant and very tender. A hot sauce-laced tahini served alongside adds creaminess and spiciness. To serve, you can stuff everything into a pita or flatbread, or leave the bread on the side and let everyone create their own sandwich at the table. Chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, and olives are optional, but they add a succulent sheen to the dish that contrasts with the aromatic, roasted flavors.

Yield: 2 servings

Total time: 45 minutes

For the cauliflower:

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, 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 pepper

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

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

Pita or flatbread to serve

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

For the hot 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 fatty clove of garlic, finely grated, passed through a press or chopped

1/4 teaspoon fine sea or table salt

1/3 cup tahini

1/3 cup ice water, plus more as needed

Tomato, cucumber and olive cubes for serving

1. Arrange racks in the top and bottom thirds of your oven. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

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

3. Roast the vegetables on the top rack of the oven, until golden, slightly crispy and tender, 30 to 40 minutes, stirring once or twice. If the vegetables look dry while frying, drizzle with a little more olive oil.

4. While cooking, prepare the tahini sauce: In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, 1 teaspoon harissa, garlic, and salt and let sit for a minute or two to soften the garlic. Stir in the tahini. Whisk in ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until 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: brands of tahini vary widely. Taste and season, adding more harissa, lemon juice and salt to taste. The sauce should taste tangy and creamy.

5. Reheat the pitas or flatbread by placing directly on the bottom rack of the oven for the last 5 minutes while the veggies are roasting. (Or you can reheat the bread on a different baking pan if that’s easier for you.)

6. Sprinkle parsley over the roasted vegetables and serve with warm pitas, tahini sauce, chopped tomatoes, cucumber and olives.

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