Harissa, a bright-red chile-based sauce or paste, is most closely associated with Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, but this indispensable seasoning got its start right here in …
Harissa, a bright-red chile-based sauce or paste, is most closely associated with Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, but this indispensable seasoning got its start right here in the Americas when world-wandering traders brought the peppers’ seeds home to North Africa.
Harissa has some heat, but most varieties are not exceptionally hot, so you can use it as a seasoning, a sauce, a marinade or an ingredient in other dishes. In Tunisia, it’s often added to couscous; in Morocco, it’s a staple ingredient in tagines. Here, a generous dollop adds zip to plain boiled potatoes, roasted veggies and eggs. You can fold a spoonful into a pot of kidney or pinto beans, or whisk some into a bowl of soup. It plays especially well with lentils and white beans.
As a condiment served on the side, it brightens a plate of roasted or grilled lamb or chicken. Mixed with a little mayonnaise, it makes a colorful sandwich spread, especially handy in the holiday season when you have a platter of leftover turkey lurking in your fridge.
I like to stir a few generous tablespoons into a third- to half-cup of olive oil and use it to slow-roast salmon fillets in a 275-degree oven. Salt the salmon before adding it and the harissa oil to a small, shallow baking dish lined with slices of lemon. Bake for about 20 minutes, baste the salmon with the oil and roast for about another 20 minutes, then check for doneness. Use the sauce remaining in the pan to season some plain steamed or boiled rice, sprinkle with some minced tender herbs (like parsley, cilantro or chives) and you have a sophisticated, simple-to-prepare main course that looks as good as it tastes.
You can find harissa in jars, cans and tubes in many well-stocked grocery stores and natural foods markets. Some of my favorite brands are Mina (which comes in two levels of heat in a glass jar) and Dea, a thicker version available in a can or tube. It’s also easy to find online. Or you can make your own harissa with this recipe, adapted from one that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 2008.
(Makes 1 cup)
4 ounces dried chiles (an equal blend of New Mexican, guajillo and chipotle)
Optional: Small handful of chiles de árbol if you want more heat
5 cloves garlic, peeled
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
1½ teaspoons caraway seeds, freshly ground
1½ coriander seeds, freshly ground
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for storage
Put chiles in large bowl and cover with boiling water. Soak until soft, then drain. Put on a pair of rubber or latex gloves and remove seeds and stems. Pulse the chiles and garlic in a food processor a few times, then add the salt and spices. Process until smooth, slowly adding the olive oil as you blend. You can also add a small amount of water if necessary to produce a thick paste.
To store, scrape into a clean glass jar, top with a thin layer of olive oil and refrigerate. For the best flavor, let the harissa sit a day before using. It will keep for at least two weeks.
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