There was a point in the middle of quarantine when I actually forgot what a vegetable was. I would get hungry and the only thoughts running through my mind were pizza, pizza, fried chicken and tacos. Other foods simply did not exist.
Now, thankfully free of the quarantine fog, I've launched into a vaccinated wonderland of restaurant dining again. The one dish that sticks in my mind like a lick from a favorite song is the cauliflower shawarma at Mayfield restaurant in San Juan Capistrano.
My love affair with this cauliflower dish was serendipitous. I had originally driven almost two hours south to try chef Jayro Martinez's za'atar fried chicken — and it's excellent. But the reason I got into my car and drove back a second time, less than a month later, was for the cauliflower shawarma.
Martinez, who previously cooked at the now-closed Mz Zh Israeli restaurant in Silver Lake, and Mayfield owner George Barker are using the term "shawarma" loosely. Shawarma originated in the Levant and is made by layering marinated meats (lamb, beef, chicken, veal, goat) onto a vertical spit and cooking it at a high temperature as it rotates. Martinez's version involves a whole cauliflower, his own shawarma spice mix, a very hot oven and a very hot grill.
“We took a lot of inspiration from classic shawarma and doner kebabs from the Levant region but thought about it in the sense of how can we incorporate that here and make it vegetable-forward to utilize what’s around us in California,” Martinez said. “It was just an idea that fit so well as a vessel for as much flavor as we’re trying to incorporate, and it’s a vegetable that’s versatile enough and familiar enough with everybody.”
Martinez takes whole cauliflower heads and rubs them down with extra virgin olive oil and a combination of turmeric, cayenne, coriander, cumin, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, onion and a few other spices he chooses to keep close to the vest. The cauliflowers marinate for two days, then Martinez roasts them in the oven. He rotates the vegetables halfway through cooking and finishes them on the grill to mimic the high heat and char of cooking meat on a spit.
The cauliflower is drizzled with tahini and served in a pool of pomegranate molasses. It's presented with a large knife sticking straight out of the top.
The shape and architecture of a cauliflower, with its countless grooves and protruding bits, make it the ideal surface for this dish. The entire vegetable caramelizes nicely, covered in dark, roasted crispy fragments you can easily break off with a fork. As you use the knife to shave off portions, the vegetable gets more tender as you reach the core.
Part of the fun of eating actual shawarma comes from the condiments you add to your meat (tahini, toum, hot sauce, pickles) and the hot pita you pile everything into. The cauliflower shawarma, however, needs no accouterment beyond the two sauces it comes with. The tahini sauce is creamy and wonderfully nutty; the pomegranate molasses both sweet and tart. This is a dish that was made for sharing, but I'll continue to order my own.
31761 Camino Capistrano, Suite 5-6, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 218-5140, mayfieldoc.com
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.