Eric Akis: Meat-free souvlaki will fill you up

Eric Akis

The word “souvlaki” comes from the medieval Greek “souvla,” which means skewer. When making souvlaki, what’s traditionally cooked on that skewer is marinated meat, such as lamb, pork or chicken.

Vegetables are also sometimes threaded on the skewers and I did that in today’s recipe. In fact, that’s all I put on the skewers, creating a colourful, meat-free version of the dish.

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To make them, a mix of cut and colourful vegetables are briefly marinated with same types of flavourings you would use for meat souvlaki, such as garlic, lemon, oregano and cumin.

The vegetables are threaded on skewers and grilled. I then removed the vegetables from the skewers and served them on warm pita with lettuce, tomatoes and olives. These vegetable souvlaki were also accented with homemade tahini sauce and tzatziki.

Rich and slightly tangy tahini sauce is easy to make and sees tahini, a sesame-seed paste, blended with such things as olive oil, lemon juice and spices.

With regard to the tzatziki, like my meat-free souvlaki, I also broke with tradition and used a yogurt-like product called cultured coconut milk as the base for it, not the Greek-style yogurt I would normally use.

Once the vegetables and other items are wrapped up in the pita, you have created a filling meal. But, if desired, you could also serve the souvlaki with Greek-style rice or roasted potatoes, or maybe with some vegetarian dolmades, which would also go well with the tzatziki.

Grilled Vegetable Souvlaki

This fold-it-up-and-eat-it meal sees warm pita topped with hot grilled vegetables and a range of tasty toppings, including dairy-free tzatziki and tahini sauce.

Preparation time: 40 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Makes: four servings

3 Tbsp olive oil

2 large garlic cloves, minced

• juice and finely grated zest of 1 lemon

2 tsp dried oregano

1/2 tsp ground cumin

1/2 tsp smoked paprika

• pinch ground cayenne pepper

• pinch ground fennel seed (optional)

1 medium green or red bell pepper, cut into 12 cubes

1 medium yellow pepper, cut into 12 cubes

1 medium red onion, cut into 12 wedges

1 medium zucchini, cut into 12, 1/2-inch rounds

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

4 or more Greek-style pita bread, warmed (see Note 1)

• tzatziki and tahini sauce, to taste (see recipes below)

• 8 cherry tomatoes, each quartered

16 to 20 pitted black olives

1 cup shredded head or leaf lettuce

1 Tbsp chopped fresh parley (optional)

Combine the oil, garlic, lemon zest and juice, oregano, cumin, paprika, cayenne and fennel seed, if using, in a large bowl. Add the peppers, onion and zucchini, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and toss to coat. Cover and let vegetables marinate and absorb flavourings 30 minutes at room temperature.

Preheat your barbecue or indoor grill to medium-high. Divide and thread the vegetables on 4 metal or wooden skewers (see Note 2), ensuring each one has equal amounts of each vegetable on them.

Set the skewers on the grill and brush them with any of the marinade left in the bowl.

Grill skewers 10 minutes, turning them occasionally, until vegetables are lightly charred and tender.

To serve, spread each pita with tzatziki. Slide the vegetables off the skewers and set in a row on the pita. Place some tahini sauce, tomatoes, olives and lettuce on and around the grilled vegetables, then sprinkle on some chopped parsley, if using. Let diners roll or fold up their pitas and devour.

Note 1: Greek-style, pocket-less pita is sold the deli section of most supermarkets. You can warm the pita by setting it on your grill for 30 seconds or so per side.

Note 2: If you use wooden skewers, to prevent scorching, soak them in cold water a few hours before threading and cooking the vegetables on them.

Eric’s options: If you don’t have a barbecue or indoor grill, you could roast the skewered vegetable instead.

To do so, preheat the oven to 425 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Set the vegetables on the baking sheet and then roast 10 minutes. Turn each skewer over, and then roast 10 minutes more.

Tahini Sauce 

This rich tasting, almost creamy, sesame seed-based sauce is great to serve as a condiment for such dishes as souvlaki and falafel.

Preparation time: five minutes

Cooking time: None

Makes: about 2/3 cup

1/4 cup tahini (see Note)

3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice

2 Tbsp regular olive oil

2 to 3 Tbsp water

1 medium or large garlic clove, minced

1/4 tsp ground cumin

• pinch ground cayenne pepper

1/4 tsp salt

2 tsp finely chopped fresh parsley (optional)

Place all ingredients, except parsley, in a bowl and whisk well to combine. Add a bit more water to the sauce if you find it too thick. Taste tahini sauce and add additional salt, if needed.

Mix in the parsley, if using, then cover and refrigerate sauce until ready to serve with the vegetable souvlaki.

Tahini sauce will keep several days in refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Note: Tahini is a sesame paste sold in jars at most supermarkets and Mediterranean or Middle Eastern food stores. Make sure it is blended well before measuring it for this recipe.

Dairy-free Tzatziki Sauce 

This dairy-free version of this famous condiment uses cultured coconut milk as its base. Cultured coconut milk is a yogurt-like product sold in the dairy case at some supermarkets. Call where you shop to see if they stock it.

Preparation: 10 minutes

Cooking time: None

Makes: about 1 cup

1/3 of a medium English cucumber

3/4 cup plain cultured coconut milk

1 Tbsp chopped fresh dill

1 small garlic clove, minced

1/2 tsp finely grated lemon zest

1 Tbsp lemon juice

• salt and white pepper to taste

• drizzle of olive oil

Set a fine sieve over a bowl. Coarsely grate cucumber into the sieve. Firmly press on cucumber and squeeze out as much liquid as you can.

Discard liquid in the bowl. Put the drained cucumber in the bowl. Add remaining ingredients, except oil, and mix to combine. Cover and refrigerate tzatziki until needed. It can be made several hours in advance. Drizzle tzatziki with a tiny bit of olive oil, just before serving.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks, including seven in his Everyone Can Cook series. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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