Every summer, I have an abundance of peppers of all varieties that come from Emerald Street Community Farm in Kensington. Not knowing what to do with all of them, I either let a bunch of them shrivel in the crisper until I feel guilty and then regrettably throw their dried up carcasses into a soup, or I stick them in the freezer to use throughout the year. Last summer’s peppers were hotter than Satan’s bunghole for some reason – the serranos and jalapeños had me bleeding out my eyes, and somebody accidentally planted a scotch bonnet plant, which, as luck would have it, was the most prolific out of all of the pepper plants, leaving us with literally hundreds of scorching hot chilis that people refused to take home.
Enter harissa, a Tunisian spread/paste made with a variety of peppers. I had to do a report on Tunisia in 6th grade – well not really a report, more like a collage. I became temporarily obsessed with it. It was my first exposure to the Berbers, and because I was 11 years old and cared a lot about, um, hotness, I was awestruck by them and convinced that the Berbers were the most beautiful people in the entire world, and in fact I could not believe that they weren’t just in charge of everything. Clearly they weren’t in an all-girls middle school like I was, where the social order would have ensured their ascension to serve as our tyrannical overlords.
Anyway, I think I was supposed to be learning about the history of Tunisia, but my collage was mostly about beaches and forests and tribal jewelry, and Berber women with their huge eyes, and plus I don’t think I understood colonialism at that point anyway to figure out how to represent it on a collage. But the Tunisians were colonized by everyone. The location made it attractive to many major powers as they rose and fell in prominence – that also meant that Tunisians experienced a range of different regions that shaped the country’s culinary culture.
Harissa is basically the ketchup of Tunisia, whose cuisine lives at the crossroads of so many other cuisines – French, North African, Middle Eastern, Turkish, and Mediterranean. I mean, what other African country do you know about that has fresh pasta dishes? Or donuts? Or uses olive oil as a staple rather than butter or ghee? Didn’t think so. See? It’s special.
I’m telling you all of this because, in case I’m not being obvious enough, HARISSA CAN GO WITH BASICALLY ANYTHING. It adds depth of flavor and complexity to such a diverse array of foods. Add it to tomato-based sauces to add depth and heat, spread it on toast and top with an egg, spoon it on top of roasted eggplant or roasted potatoes, add it to a marinade for chicken, or mix it into sautéed kale or into simmered tuscan white beans. It will keep in the fridge for several weeks and can also be easily frozen if you feel the need to make a lot. It is one of those things that, when you have it around, will stave off the threat of a bland meal, no matter what other ingredients you’re working with.
And there are a million reasons to make it on your own. If you buy good harissa, it’s expensive. If you buy cheap harissa, it’s bland. And it’s nearly impossible to screw up if you make it at home.
Best of all, there are an infinite number of combinations and permutations of peppers you can use, so (1) you can change it up based on what you’ve got on hand, (2) you never get bored of it and (3) you can modify the recipe based on how lazy you are.
The things you absolutely MUST have: hot and mild peppers of some kind, which can be dried, fresh, or a combination; garlic; olive oil; salt; lemon; and the triumvirate of lightly toasted spices that is the common thread of every harissa recipe I have ever seen: coriander seed, cumin seed, and caraway seed.
First thing’s first. Peppers. I use a mix of fresh (which I roast) and dried. You can do whatever the hell you want, I don’t care. They make tons of harissa using just dried chiles and it’s totally fine. I like to use a mix of varieties because it builds nice layers of flavor. Roasting peppers is a pain in the ass despite what chefs tell you (it’s not hard, it just takes a while and there are multiple, active steps), so if you want a simpler version of harissa there is nothing wrong with just using dried chilis – just make sure to include a hot one, like dried chile de arbol, if you like it spicy.
In this case, I’m using what I have on hand. For my dried chilis, I have guajillos but you could use pasilla chilis, New Mexico, anchos, or a combination of mild chiles. To add some smokiness, I roasted a red bell pepper, a red jalapeno, a red serrano, and three green mystery peppers that are mild – maybe they’re tiny poblanos. Make sure to choose a combination that strikes a balance between mild and hot peppers based on your taste – I only have two hot peppers and the rest are innocent – but those two hot ones are the Satan’s Bunghole peppers, even after they’re seeded. So be aware of what you’re getting yourself into wrt spice.
After you’ve gathered your ingredients, the rest is very easy. You roast and toast (the fresh chiles and the spices, respectively), seed and soak (the dried chilis), and sauteé (optional) and process everything together.
And then you end up with something beautiful.
1 large fresh red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and quartered so they lay as flat as possible skin-side-up on a baking sheet
2 hot fresh red chiles (like red jalapenos or serranos)
1-2 poblano peppers
2-3 large mild dried chiles (like New Mexico, guajillo, ancho, pasilla or a combination), stemmed and seeded
1/2 tsp coriander seeds
1/2 tps cumin seeds
1/2 tsp caraway seeds
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 small red onion, chopped
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp lemon
2 tsp tomato paste
optional: fresh mint leaves
- Roast the peppers: Preheat the broiler on high, and line a baking sheet with foil. Place all the fresh peppers skin side up on the foil, and position under the broiler, about 6 inches from the flame. You don’t want it to get too close, or the skin will blister before the flesh starts roasting. Roast the peppers, turning when necessary, until the skin on all sides of the peppers is blistered and the flesh is tender. Some of the peppers might roast faster than others, so just remove them one-by-one as they finish. Place all of the peppers in a bowl sealed tightly with plastic wrap. After 5-10 minutes, remove the plastic wrap and use your fingers to remove the skin, which should peel off easily. Discard the skins, stems and seeds, roughly chop peppers and set them aside.
- Soak the dried chiles: Place stemmed and seeded dried chilis in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Let soak 10-15 minutes, or until tender and pliable.
- Toast spices: Heat a skillet on low, and lightly toast the three spices together, stirring gently, about 2 minutes until fragrant. Transfer to a spice grinder or mortar and pestal and grind. (Grind mint leaves in with spices, if using).
- Heat olive oil on medium heat, add in onions, garlic, and roasted peppers. Cook 7-8 minutes until onions are soft and light brown and the whole mixture is fragrant.
- In a mini food processor or blender, add onion and pepper mixture, soaked chiles discarding the soaking liquid (or saving it for some other use), tomato paste, ground spices, lemon juice, and 1/2 tsp salt and process until smooth, scraping down the sides and adding more olive oil if necessary.
- Store in a very clean jar in the fridge, and drizzle a little olive oil over the top to keep it moist.
A note on working with chiles: wear gloves or at least make sure to wash your hands a thousand times.