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Harissa magic

(article, Adam Ried)

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I know people who douse every bite they take with hot sauce. People who pop ghost peppers just for the adrenaline rush. I call these people “heat-seeking missiles.” And I am not one of them. 

Instead, I’m judicious in my use of chiles and hot spices. A pinch of cayenne, perhaps, to add sparkle to dips and dressings. A dab of Tabasco to enhance a raw oyster or a serving of shrimp and grits. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Packaged harissa, doctored."]

I understand that you can’t make jerk chicken without a little Scotch bonnet or habañero chile, but you can do so and still keep the fire alarm from blaring. The bottle of Sriracha in my fridge may outlive the paint job on the house.

There is one heat source, however, that I can’t seem to resist: harissa. 

A chile paste from Tunisia that's also found throughout Morocco, harissa is, in its simplest form, a mixture of chiles (often dried, but sometimes fresh), olive oil, and salt, with heat varying from mild to blistering. 

I have yet to make my way to Tunisia; it’s on the bucket list. But when I was in Morocco, just about every restaurant and home table at which I sat down had a small dish of brick-hued harissa to use as a condiment for dipping bread and spicing up sauces, soups, couscous, tagines, brochettes, sandwiches, vegetables, eggs, potatoes, and olives. It seemed to be as ubiquitous there as ketchup is here.


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More often than not, various spices, herbs, and flavorings — including garlic, cumin, coriander, sweet or smoked paprika, caraway, mint, cilantro, lemon, bell peppers, and tomato (either paste or sun-dried) — are included in a harissa to provide dimension. This is where the magic lies for me. These background flavors elevate harissa into something much more interesting and alluring than just a simple chile paste.

After experimenting with numerous recipes, I’ve found that harissa with caraway appeals to me the most. And by “most” I mean really quite a lot: I can’t stop eating the stuff.

As a kid in New York and environs, I never considered caraway seeds beyond those found on loaves of decent deli rye bread. It was years and years later, when I learned to make Hungarian gulyas (goulash), that I gave caraway — with its faintly woodsy, oregano-like flavor and scent — a second thought. And I was surprised to see it again when I began to look into Tunisian food after a friend told me about his travels there.  

Caraway gives harissa a subtly sweet, distinct note that rises above the chiles, while playing to their fruity qualities. And even though I know it’s there, it usually catches me unawares anyhow. I still haven’t learned to expect it. 

While caraway figures prominently in my go-to formula, if you prefer lemony and fresh herbal notes instead, omit the caraway and replace it with ¼ cup packed fresh mint leaves, ⅓ cup packed fresh cilantro leaves, and 1½ tablespoons fresh lemon juice (in which case the recipe yield increases to about 1 cup). Another favorite addition to harissa is a little tomato paste, which brings a noticeable umami-like richness and faint sweetness to the show.  

Homemade harissa is easily adjustable. I like it smooth, so I strain it (through a medium-mesh strainer, as using a fine-mesh strainer would make this chore even more tedious). But if you don’t mind a coarser texture from leaving in the chile skins, skip the straining. 
Then there’s the matter of commercially prepared harissa. I’ve read that almost no North African home cook makes their own harissa, because it’s so widely available in cans, squeeze tubes, and from market vendors selling it alongside olives and preserved lemons. 

Despite having ingredients similar to the harissa I make, I’ve never encountered a prepared version that tastes as fresh and nuanced as homemade. In my experience, the commercial versions tend to be overly salty and unpleasantly sharp. A few careful additions, as in the recipe below for doctored harissa, can improve matters considerably.

Has harissa turned me into a Moroccan version of a heat-seeking missile? No, but I don’t think twice about leaving my perch in front of the AC to make a fresh batch when the supply dwindles. In July, that’s really saying something.

Yield: about 1/2 cup
Total time: about 55 minutes (including chile-soaking time)

If you’re a heat-seeking missile who wants your harissa hot, purée some of the chile seeds (or some cayenne) along with the flesh. For time efficiency, toast and cool the spices while the chiles soak.

3 oz. dried chiles (about 12, depending on types and sizes), preferably a 3-to-1 combination of New Mexico or California and guajillo or pasilla, seeded if desired, and torn into pieces
2 tsp. coriander seeds, lightly toasted and cooled
1 tsp. caraway seeds, lightly toasted and cooled
¾ tsp. cumin seeds, lightly toasted and cooled
3 garlic cloves
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra to cover

Cover the chiles with hot water in a large bowl, set a plate on them to keep them submerged, and set aside to soak until they are fully softened, about 40 minutes. Reserve ¼ cup of the soaking liquid and put it aside. Drain the chiles and set them aside.

Pulse the coriander, caraway, and cumin a few times in a food processor to begin breaking down the seeds. Add the garlic, and pulse a few more times to chop it. Scrape down the sides of the workbowl with a flexible spatula, add the chiles, reserved soaking liquid, tomato paste, and 1¼ teaspoons salt, and process to a coarse purée. With the feed tube open and the motor running, add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream; continue to process and/or pulse until the purée is as smooth as you can get it, stopping to scrape the sides of the bowl as necessary, about 2 minutes.

If desired, strain the purée through a medium-mesh strainer over a nonreactive bowl, stirring and pressing with a flexible spatula to work it through the strainer until only the chile skins remain (you should have about a generous ½ cup of smooth harissa); discard the solids left in the strainer. 

Taste the harissa and adjust the seasoning with additional salt, if necessary. Scrape the harissa into a glass container, pour in olive oil just to cover, cover the jar, and refrigerate for up to one month. (Each time you use some, tilt the jar or add a little more olive oil to make sure the surface of harissa is covered.)

Doctored Tinned Harissa If You Must
Yield: about 2/3 cup
Total time: about 5 minutes

The ease of squeezing a tube or opening a can is undeniable. If you must, take a cue from David Waltuck and Melicia Phillips’ book [%amazonProductLink asin=0761116982 "Staff Meals from Chanterelle" newpage=true], from which this recipe is adapted, and add a few fresh ingredients to the canned stuff to improve its flavor. The honey is very unorthodox, but I think it helps offset the saltiness and sharpness I’ve noticed in packaged harissa. 

Look for prepared harissa in supermarket international aisles and high-end and Middle Eastern specialty stores.

5 ounces prepared harissa
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
1 Tbsp. honey
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
2 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh mint leaves
3 Tbsp. finely chopped cilantro

Whisk all the ingredients in a small bowl to combine well. Taste the harissa and adjust the seasoning with additional tomato paste or honey, if necessary. Scrape the harissa into a glass container, pour in olive oil just to cover, cover the jar, and refrigerate for up to three days. (Each time you use some, tilt the jar or add a little more olive oil to make sure surface of harissa is covered.)

Mourad’s Djemaa el F’na Potato and Egg Sandwich
Yield: Two 5-inch sandwiches
Total time: about 10 minutes (excluding potato and egg cooking times)

[%image sandwich float=right width=400 caption="We used ciabatta for this sandwich, and it turned out great."]

Mourad Lahlou, the author of [%amazonProductLink asin=1579654290 "Mourad New Moroccan" newpage=true] — from which this recipe is adapted — encountered this sandwich in the sweeping main plaza of Marrakesh, which becomes a sea of food stalls and grills at twilight each night. I was there, too, but I spent my time dodging the snake charmers (major phobia here, even though I know that precautions are taken) and sampling harira, brochettes, steamed snails, and all manner of honey-soaked sweets. If I’d seen this sandwich in my wanderings, I’d have sampled it, too.
Cheesewise — that’s a word, right? — Lahlou recommends either Laughing Cow or cream cheese. I like something a little more flavorful but still mild, such as havarti, fontina, or Monterey Jack. I’ve also been known to add some grated carrot for sweetness and/or lettuce, arugula, or baby spinach for freshness and texture, and to replace the cheese with lightly mashed, olive-oil-packed sardines or tuna.
I think that seeded, unsliced Scali is the bread of choice here, because both the crust and the crumb are relatively soft.

2 lengths (each about 5 inches long) seeded Scali bread, from 1 large, unsliced loaf (about 12 inches long)
6 Tbsp. harissa, preferably homemade
4 oz. havarti, fontina, or Monterey Jack cheese, thinly sliced
2 small Yukon gold potatoes (about 5 ounces each), boiled until tender, still warm and thinly sliced
1 Tbsp. white-wine vinegar
Salt and pepper
3 hard-cooked eggs, peeled, still warm and thinly sliced

Halve the bread pieces lengthwise, through their equators. Lay the halves crust sides down on the work surface, and spread about 1½ Tbsp. harissa evenly on each piece. On the bottom halves, evenly arrange half the cheese and half the potato slices, and sprinkle about 1½ tsp. vinegar evenly over the potatoes. Sprinkle the potatoes with salt and pepper to taste. Arrange half the egg slices over the potatoes on each sandwich and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Top each with one of the top bread halves, press lightly to gently compact the sandwich, slice in half if desired, and serve.

Chickpea and Spinach Salad with Harissa and Preserved Lemon
Yield: about 6 cups
Total time: about 1 hour, 20 minutes (including marinating time)_

This hearty salad can certainly serve as the star of a meatless meal. Note that I specify regular spinach here; baby spinach leaves are a bit too delicate for the brawny chickpeas and heavy dressing.

1½ Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 garlic clove, minced
3 Tbsp. harissa, preferably homemade, or more to taste
1 small preserved lemon, rind only, rinsed well and finely chopped (about ¼ cup)
1 Tbsp. honey
Salt and pepper
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 large cans (19 ounces) chickpeas, rinsed and drained (about 3½ cups)
6 oz. roasted red peppers, drained and thinly sliced (about ⅔ cup)
½ cup finely chopped red onion
1½ cups cherry or grape tomatoes, halved (quartered if large)
4 cups (loosely packed) chopped fresh spinach leaves (about 3 oz.)
4 large eggs, hard cooked, peeled, and quartered lengthwise

Whisk the lemon juice, garlic, harissa, preserved lemon, honey, 1 tsp. salt, and pepper to taste in a large nonreactive bowl to combine well. Vigorously whisk in the olive oil. Taste the dressing and adjust the seasoning with additional harissa, salt and/or pepper, if necessary. Reserve about 2 tablespoons of the dressing and set aside.

Add chickpeas and roasted peppers, stir to mix, and set aside to marinate for about 1 hour.

Add the onion, tomatoes, and spinach, and toss to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning with additional salt and pepper, if necessary. 

Transfer to a wide serving dish or platter, garnish with the eggs, drizzle them with the reserved dressing, and serve immediately.

reference-image, l

sandwich, l