Sicilian-Style Vegan Cuisine

by Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD, CCE

Mention Sicily to people who are familiar with it, and you'll hear about ancient landscapes, a rich history, and... lots of food! You can't visit a Sicilian household or business and have only a "little taste." The "taste" could be a glass of hearty wine with crusty bread, a delicate dish of olives, or a bitter, bracing, steaming hot espresso accompanied by anisette toast or candied figs.

Over the years, many conquerors left their culinary mark upon this Southern Italian region. For example, carciofi alla Guida (artichokes done in the Jewish way) dates back to Roman times. Thought to be from Jerusalem by way of Rome, this popular dish is prepared by flattening artichokes and sautéing them in olive oil and bread crumbs.

This history has left a legacy upon today's Sicilian pantry, where you would find pasta and rice, sausage (vegan Soyrizo works well), cheeses (soy Parmesan and mozzarella are terrific substitutes), eggplant or melanzane, capers, olives, cauliflower, artichokes, and onions. Flavorings include fennel, oregano, mint, and sesame seeds for savory dishes and nuts, syrups, and sweet wine for desserts.

Wheat is the grain crop in Sicily, and you'll find pasta, pasta, and more pasta. We've seen sweet pasta, angel hair tossed with raisins and pine nuts; seasonal pasta, ravioli stuffed with puréed winter squash or pumpkin; and fried pasta or pastachiutte (pronounced "pasta-shoot-te"), leftover pasta with sauce that is quickly stir-fried in olive oil for a second-day meal.

With the wheat comes lots of crusty bread and rolls and unleavened bread, eaten dipped in olive oil. San vito pizza is a pizza dough topped with savories, such as chopped olives and minced garlic. Scacciata, or bread pie, is made from two dough rounds that have tomatoes and cheeses sandwiched in between them. You can reproduce these with dough made from scratch or with frozen, thawed pizza dough.

There are lots of pasta dishes that incorporate seafood. The sea figures in the life of Sicily, and fish is an important ingredient. One such recipe is pasta con sarde, a layered pie of pasta with a sauce flavored with fennel, sardines, pine nuts, and white raisins. You can make this dish vegan by using smoked tofu or Tuno, a canned vegan product, instead of sardines.

Also, when you think Sicilian cuisine, you must think of lots of olives! Olive trees provide the shade, the cooking oil, and the "vegetable" for Sicily. Olives are often used to make tapenades, which are traditional, flavorful, and usually vegan! For this dish, the olives are hand-minced into a paste and may be flavored with fresh garlic, onions, basil, sage, thyme, or pepper for variety. The result is served as a coarse dip or to replace oil or butter on bread. (If ordering tapenades in a restaurant, check to ensure that some minced anchovy did not find its way into the dish. Anchovies are plentiful in Sicily and are often used as a flavoring ingredient.)

Southern Italy shows the marriage of the olive and the "golden apple." Tomatoes, or pommodoro (literally "apple of gold"), have been a Sicilian staple since they were introduced from the New World. Combined with the traditional olive, fresh tomatoes can be served as a salsa cruda, or fresh sauce. The tomatoes are chopped and thrown into a sauté pan with olive oil, chopped olives, a little garlic, and perhaps some basil. This combination is quickly cooked until the tomatoes are lightly wilted and then the sauce is served over pasta. Olives and breadcrumbs are used to stuff tomatoes that are then either baked or braised until soft.

Classic Sicilian flavoring combinations include basil, olive oil, garlic, and pine nuts (also known as pesto or pistou), or a savory mix of olive oil, parsley, and garlic. These combinations can be used to dress pasta, risotto made with short-grained arborio rice (the pearly-looking variety that is the basis of risotto), seasonal cooked greens, roasted potatoes, and breads. Walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts are plentiful. Often these are used to season sweet and savory dishes or served with fresh or dried fruit.

Sicily has warm summers, and many types of citrus fruit, prickly pear, cactus fruit, melons, and figs grow in season. These fruits are eaten fresh, served simply with a syrup, or dried or canned in syrup or wine for eating year-round. Marsala is a sweet dessert wine, served as a dessert and used as an ingredient in many sweet dishes.

Sicilian cooks take their desserts seriously. It's believed that, in the 800s, the Sarracins introduced Sicily to sophisticated sweets, such as cannoli and cassata, creamy custard studded with raisins. Throwing sugar-coated almonds at weddings for a sweet and fruitful life was thought to originate in Sicily, by way of the Sarracins. Some Sicilian monasĀ¬teries still compete annually, using closely guarded recipes for candy, confections, and ice creams.

Soupe au Pistou

(Bean Soup with Basil)

(Serves 10)

Although "pistou" is the French term for "pesto," you'll find this soup thoroughly Sicilian in flavor.


  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 4 cloves peeled garlic
  • 1 cup packed fresh basil leaves (or about 4 Tablespoons dried basil)

Place oil, garlic, and basil in a blender or food processor canister. Blend until smooth. Set aside.


  • 1 cup cooked or canned white beans, such as navy beans (If starting with dry beans, soak and cook ½ cup beans.)
  • 2 cups chopped onions
  • 5-½ cups water
  • 4 cups chopped canned tomatoes (with liquid)
  • ¾ cup tomato paste
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 cup fresh or frozen, thawed green beans, cut in ½-inch lengths
  • 1 baking potato, peeled and diced (about 1-½ cups)

Combine beans, onions, water, tomatoes, tomato paste, and pepper in a large soup pot. Bring to a fast boil, lower heat, and allow soup to simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Add green beans and potatoes, and simmer until potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes. Stir pistou into simmering soup. Stir and simmer for 3 minutes or until hot.

Total calories per serving: 159 Fat: 6 grams
Carbohydrates: 23 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 174 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Stuffed Savory Pepper Appetizer

(Makes 5 appetizers or 2-3 entrées)

This recipe, which combines such Sicilian staples as olive oil, garlic, parsley, and tomatoes, is colorful and hearty either as an appetizer or as an entrée.

  • 5 fresh red bell peppers
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 cloves fresh garlic, minced
  • ¼ cup smoked tofu or Tuno*
  • 1 cup dry bread crumbs
  • ½ cup minced fresh parsley
  • ½ cup fresh tomatoes, chopped
  • Vegetable oil spray

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Cut peppers in half, across the "equator," so you can stuff them. Remove seeds and core. Set aside.

Heat olive oil in a frying pan. Add garlic and sauté until just golden (do not allow to brown). Remove from heat.

In a medium bowl, mash Tuno or smoked tofu. Add garlic and oil, bread crumbs, and parsley, and mix well. Put a small amount of mixture in each pepper half. Top with tomatoes.

Spray a baking dish or oven casserole with oil. Place peppers in dish. Spray a small amount of oil over each stuffed pepper. Bake for about 20 minutes or until peppers are soft.

*Sicilian cooking gets a lot of its accent flavor from anchovies or smoked fish. You can reproduce this vegan-style by using smoked tofu or Tuno, a canned vegan product from Natural Touch.

Total calories per serving: 170 Fat: 5 grams
Carbohydrates: 27 grams Protein: 6 grams
Sodium: 259 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams


(Makes 10 appetizer portions)

Make this dish during eggplant season, then freeze or properly can for use throughout the year. Serve as a thick dip, sandwich filler, or condiment, or use instead of a sauce.

  • 1 large eggplant, peeled and cubed (about 3-½ cups)
  • ¾ cup chopped onions
  • ¾ cup chopped red bell pepper
  • ½ cup fresh tomatoes, chopped
  • ½ cup chopped celery
  • ⅓ cup pitted and halved green olives
  • ¼ cup pitted and chopped black olives
  • ⅓ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup red wine vinegar or plain vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon sugar (Use your favorite vegan variety.)
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper

Place all ingredients in a large pot and stir. Turn heat to low, and allow dish to simmer, uncovered, for 40-50 minutes or until vegetables are soft and most of the liquid has evaporated. Allow to cool. Serve as noted above.

Total calories per serving: 95 Fat: 9 grams
Carbohydrates: 6 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 113 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams


(Bread Salad)

(Serves 8)

The texture of the marinated bread makes for a delightful salad. Serve on its own or as a stuffing for tomatoes, summer squash, peppers, or sweet onions.

  • Crusty fresh bread (baguette or Italian bread, for example)
    ripped into small pieces to total 1 cup
  • 2 Tablespoons red wine vinegar or plain vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon cold water, or as needed
  • 2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes
  • ½ cup chopped red onions
  • ¾ cup diced fresh cucumber or zucchini
  • ½ cup chopped celery
  • 2 teaspoons shredded fresh basil
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 4 Tablespoons olive oil

In a large glass or plastic bowl, combine bread, vinegar, and water. Use enough water to moisten bread lightly. Don't use so much water that the bread gets soggy or soupy.

Add tomatoes, onions, cucumbers or zucchini, celery, basil, and pepper. Toss, sprinkle olive oil over mixture, and toss again. Chill for at least 40 minutes prior to serving.

Total calories per serving: 92 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 6 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 37 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Spinachi in Tegame

(Spinach sautéed with garlic)

(Serves 6)

A fast, savory side dish.

  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 pounds (or three 10-ounce bags) fresh spinach, washed and trimmed
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper

Place olive oil in a large frying pan and heat. Add garlic and sauté until just golden. (Do not allow to brown.) Add spinach, tossing constantly, until just wilted. ReĀ¬move from heat, toss in pepper, and serve immediately.

Total calories per serving: 78 Fat: 5 grams
Carbohydrates: 7 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 120 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Radicchio e Finocchio

(Radicchio and Fennel Sautéed with Onions)

(Serves 6)

A little more expensive than the usual side dish but wonderful for holiday and special meal events.

  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • ½ cup thinly sliced onions
  • 3 cups sliced fresh fennel
  • 1 cup shredded fresh radicchio

Place oil in large frying pan and heat. Add onions and sauté until soft, about 3 minutes.

Add fennel and radicchio, reduce heat, and cover. Allow to simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until fennel is soft.

Total calories per serving: 58 Fat: 5 grams
Carbohydrates: 4 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 24 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Salsa Verde

(Green Sauce for Vegetables)

(Makes about 1 cup)

Traditionally, salsa verde is served with asparagus, but any vegetable, potato, or grain will be glad to associate with it!

  • 2 cups washed and stemmed fresh parsley
  • 2 Tablespoons drained capers
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • ¼ cup red wine vinegar or plain vinegar
  • ½ cup olive oil

Place parsley, capers, and garlic in a food processor or blender canister and process until smooth. Continue to process, adding vinegar and oil in a steady stream.

Alternatively, you can chop the parsley, capers, and garlic by hand, if preferred. Then, whisk the vinegar and oil in slowly until mixture is very well combined.

Chill until ready to serve, then warm in a microwave or warm water bath on top of stove.

Total calories per 2 TB serving: 136 Fat: 14 grams
Carbohydrates: 4 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 74 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Sicilian Sweet Meats

Make these little dessert "bites" ahead of time. Offer a combination of them as a Sicilian sweet sampler, with nuts and dried fruit.


(Makes about 20 pieces, or 10 servings)

  • 1 pound (about 2 cups) marzipan or almond paste
  • 2 pounds (about 4 cups) whole dates
  • 8 ounces (about 1 cup) orange flower water (available in Middle Eastern or Mediterranean groceries, health foods stores, and supermarkets that carry international products)
  • 8 ounces (about 1 cup) sugar (use your favorite vegan variety)

Shape the marzipan into small balls. Slice dates almost in half and stuff with marzipan; press halves together.

Combine orange water and sweetener in a small pot and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 5 minutes.

Dip dates into hot syrup to glaze them. Allow to cool.

Total calories per serving: 509 Fat: 9 grams
Carbohydrates: 113 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 16 milligrams Fiber: 9 grams


(Makes about 20 pieces, or 10 servings)

2 pounds (about 4 cups) ground almonds
2 pounds sugar (use your favorite vegan variety)

Make certain that almonds are uniformly ground.

Melt sweetener in a double boiler or heavy pan until it begins to caramelize. Remove from heat and quickly stir in almonds until well combined.

Pour the mixture onto a greased cookie sheet and spread to a 2-inch thickness. Allow to cool and cut as desired.

Total calories per serving: 885 Fat: 46 grams
Carbohydrates: 107 grams Protein: 19 grams
Sodium: 35 milligrams Fiber: 11 grams


(Makes about 20 pieces, or 10 servings)

  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 2 pounds (about 4 cups) blanched almonds
  • 2 pounds dry vegan sweetener, such as date sugar

Spray large frying pan or sauté pan with oil and allow to heat. Brown almonds in a sauté pan until slightly golden. Leave whole.

Melt sweetener in a double boiler or heavy pan until it begins to caramelize. Remove from heat and quickly stir in almonds until well combined.

Pour the mixture onto a greased cookie sheet and spread to a 2-inch thickness. Allow to cool and cut as desired.

Total calories per serving: 897 Fat: 46 grams
Carbohydrates: 105 grams Protein: 19 grams
Sodium: 35 milligrams Fiber: 10 grams

Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD, CCE, is VRG's Food Service Advisor.