Maybe I’ve been living under a rock, but up until a year ago, I had never heard of harissa. It first popped up on my radar when I noticed two of my favorite blogistas Heidi Swanson at 101cookbooks.com and Deb Perelman at SmittenKitchen.com sneaking the spicy North African staple into pasta sauces and dressings, and I knew I had to give it a try.
At first I thought that making an exotic paste like this might be an unrealistic challenge in Birmingham, Alabama, where I was living at the time. But after glancing over a few recipes online, I realized that I had most of its key ingredients—cumin, coriander, olive oil, lemon— in my pantry, and the few I lacked I could pick up in one stop at my closest grocery store. Not only that, but I could whip up a batch in about 30 minutes.
Unlike hot sauces, which just slap you with heat, harissa is smoky, spicy, and complex. Here, I’ve bridled it with a touch of honey and fresh mint. Although it’s traditionally eaten with hummus, lamb, and couscous, I’ve found it’s also at home on baked eggs, stirred into a potato salad, spread on a sandwich, or rubbed on a whole chicken. What a delicious discovery.
Dried chiles are harissa’s backbone. I’ve learned the hard way to respect all chiles (jalapeños and removing contacts don’t mix), so I always wear gloves to protect my hands—and anything they might touch—from chiles’ burning oils.
Ancho chiles are on the milder end of the chili spectrum, but I still find their firepower quite strong, so it’s best to remove most or all of the seeds. Cutting off the tops with kitchen shears makes this step quick and easy. Then open them up, pull out any core, and shake the seeds out (working over a paper towel helps with cleanup). If you are inclined to make a spicier version, however, leave in the seeds and the internal membrane that holds the seeds.
Next, pour boiling water over the chiles to rehydrate them. After about 20 minutes, they should be softened but not mushy. I like to do this first so that while they soak, I can work on the other steps.
While traditional harissa doesn’t contain fresh chiles or bell peppers, I’ve found that straight dried chiles can make the spread bitter. Serrano and poblano chiles add a fresh heat, and bell peppers add a nice brightness; roasting them adds depth. While you still have the gloves on, go ahead and de-seed both fresh chiles. For the small serrano, grab a knife—or a grapefruit spoon, which works great for quickly scraping away the seeds.
The easiest way to prepare the bell peppers for roasting is to first cut off the top and bottom. Next, remove the core and seeds, and slice bell peppers in half lengthwise. Cut away the ribs. Then lay them on a foil-lined baking sheet. I’ve found that I get more even charring by pressing the fresh chiles and bell peppers as flat as possible; otherwise, the high spots will blacken too quickly.
Pop the peppers under the broiler. I’ve found that the darker and more blistered the skin on the peppers, the easier they are to peel, so I’m careful to not to pull them from the oven too early. However, I keep a close eye on them during the last few minutes of broiling to avoid setting off the smoke alarm.
When the skins start to blister and blacken, place the peppers in a large bowl and cover with plastic wrap. After 15 minutes, the skins should come right off.
Cumin, coriander, and caraway are the holy trinity of harissa spices. (Once when I was out of caraway I decided to make a batch anyway, and, wow, what a difference! That ½ teaspoon goes a long way.) Toasting them brings their flavors front and center, plus it makes your kitchen smell like heaven.
Next, place the whole spices in a spice grinder (an old coffee grinder works just as well, or you could muscle it out with a mortar and pestle). Process until finely ground, about 10 seconds. Add all ingredients to a food processor. Toss in fresh mint for its clean flavor—plus, I like that it’s in step with the region’s cuisine. Honey tempers the heat and fights any bitterness.
Oil’s next. I once read an Alice Waters recipe that used clarified butter instead, so I whipped it up to compare against my usual method: It was a little too thick and unctuous. My guess is that Waters uses her harissa on hot dishes like couscous, where the butter would melt and create luxurious, rich puddles. While that sounds amazing, I think my version is more versatile—plus, the smoky chile flavor remains the focus.
Now, it’s time to add the remaining ingredients and give everything a quick zip in the food processor. I think 10 seconds is a good start. Then scrape down sides, and process again until just combined. (I like mine a little chunky.)
To store, use glass jars and drizzle the top with a little olive oil.
Tighten lids and refrigerate—although, more often than not, I have a jar out and on the table. More cosmopolitan than most condiments, harissa is also great with a burger and fries. (I’ve given ketchup and hot sauce my notice.)