One of my secret food shames is that I don’t love spicy foods as much as would probably make me cool these days. I’ve got no Thai chile-eating bravado, no Sichuan peppercorn count to throw around, and I never even once in college went to one of those Buffalo wings places where they make you sign a waiver (such as the delightfully named, late Cluck U Chicken near Rutgers University) and lived to brag about it, the way others might boast about how much they bench press or how fast they run a mile (nope, nothing to swagger about there either). My ideal hot sauce can’t be found among my husband’s collection of Tapatio, Cholula and Sriracha, but in this Mild Sauce for Hot People, one of the few little orange bottles that I feel really understands my appreciation of heat in food, but not so much that it overwhelms everything. I accept that this makes me culinarily a wuss.
Yet I adore harissa, a Northwest African chile pepper paste with red peppers and spices and herbs such as garlic, coriander, caraway. Of course, when a condiment is used everywhere from Tunisia and Libya to Algeria and Morocco, you’re bound to find as many versions of it as there likely are people who make it, so there are recipes with cumin, lemon juice or even smoked chiles. There’s no one correct way to make it.
But there is the way I like it. In case you didn’t believe me when I’ve said that my queue of recipes I hope to share here one day is very, very long, I first made harissa in 2008, after The Wednesday Chef made a riff on the one Amy Scattergood had shared in the LA Times the fall before, mostly because I’ll cook anything Luisa Weiss tells me to. Using roasted red peppers, rehydrated chiles, garlic, spices and my favorite totally unhip ingredient, sundried tomatoes, it’s everything I wish bottled hot sauce were — robust with complex flavors, not just a vinegary punch.
So what can you put it on? All of the things, really; fish, meat, couscous, beans or soups. You could swirl it into yogurt for a lovely marinade or mayo for a glorious dip. In my first cookbook, I made a honey-harissa vinaigrette for a roast carrot and parnsip farro salad and in the archives, there’s a beloved carrot salad with mint, feta and harissa. It’s had it’s fair share of play lately atop crispy eggs and latke waffles. It would be welcome in a fall-toush salad, or be an excellent gift for the “hotties” in your life, in small jars, although make extra, because I find this stuff hard to share.
One year ago: Potato and Broccolini Frittata
Two years ago: Butternut Squash Salad with Farro and Pepitas
Three years ago: Pear, Cranberry and Gingersnap Crumble
Four years ago: Spicy Squash Salad with Lentils and Goat Cheese
Five years ago: Cauliflower with Almonds, Raisins and Capers
Six years ago: Meatballs and Spaghetti and Cranberry-Walnut Chicken Salad
Seven years ago: Pumpkin Butter and Pepita Granola
Eight years ago: Wild Mushroom and Stilton Galette
And for the other side of the world:
Six Months Ago: Avocado Cup Salads, Two Ways
1.5 Years Ago: Yogurt Panna Cotta with Walnuts and Honey
2.5 Years Ago: Cinnamon Toast French Toast
3.5 Years Ago: Crispy Potato Roast
Which dried chiles to use? From Amy Scattergood: “Although you can make harissa out of virtually any dried chile that suits your personal heat index, most traditional harissas use chiles that are only about as hot as anchos or pasillas. Guajillo and New Mexico chiles, according to cookbook author Paula Wolfert, are the closest to the peppers of Nabeul and Gabès in Tunisia. Use one or both, or add a few chipotle chiles into the mix: The smokiness of the chipotles adds a terrific earthy note. Or, if you like more heat, add a generous handful of chiles de arbol or even some red-hot Thai chiles — the flavors will mellow a bit, though not that much.” For the total of 4 ounces dried chiles, I used a mix of 2 ounces negro, 1 ounce ancho and 1 ounce chipotle chiles.
My other changes were adjustments to personal taste; I used much less garlic than the 4 cloves originally recommended, as I didn’t want it to overwhelm (and a single clove of the stuff I get at farmer’s markets is usually quite strong). And I added a little cumin, because I love it here. Finally, Amy recommends only using half your roasted red pepper but I always use all of it. We already know I’m a wimp about heat, but the final harissa doesn’t suffer any mildness because of it, just an extra boost of flavor. The recipe below includes these adjustments.
Makes about 1 1/4 cups
1 large red bell pepper
4 ounces dried chiles (see suggestions above)
3 sun-dried tomatoes, dry-packed
2 clove garlic, peeled
1 teaspoon coarse or kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon ground coriander (1 1/2 teaspoons seeds, toasted and ground)
1/2 teaspoon ground caraway (or 1 teaspoon seeds, toasted and ground)
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin (or 1 teaspoon seeds, toasted and ground)
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus extra for storage
Roast your red pepper: You can do so in a 350°F oven, turning it every 15 minutes for a total of 45 to 60, until it’s deeply roasted on all sides. Some people prefer to do this over a gas flame, but be sure you cook it long enough that’s it truly soft inside, so it will blend well. Set aside to cool — you can do this in a bowl with foil or plastic over it, but I find it’s just as easy to peel a well-roasted pepper even if it’s cooled right on the tray, without the added steam. Once cool enough to handle, peel and seed the pepper.
Meanwhile, place dried chiles and sundried tomato in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Let sit for 30 minutes, until well-softened. Drain and with gloved hands, if you don’t like living on the edge, remove the seeds and stems from the chiles. The sundried tomatoes can be used as-is.
Place roasted red pepper, rehydrated chiles, tomatoes, garlic, salt and spices in a blender or food processor with 1 tablespoon olive oil and blend until it becomes a thick paste; a little water may be necessary to help this along. Store in the fridge, topped with a thin layer of olive oil. Use on everything.