You know those foods and flavors that you constantly crave? The ones that you could devour every day. The ones that you eat as soon as you get home from vacation because no matter how good the food was wherever you went you were still missing THIS particular food? I call those foods our “home palate.” They may or may not be the flavors you grew up eating but they are the foods that feel like home. My home palate, in no particular order, is made up of lemons, olive oil, fresh chilies, yuzu, harissa and mint. These foods are home to me. They are my desert-island foods. They are the foods I can’t live without.
If you look at this list you’ll realize that one of these things does not belong: harissa. Harissa is different because it is not a single ingredient, but rather a condiment made of many ingredients. To know me is to know that I’m a condiment girl. I like my food like I like my friends: layered and complex. And harissa does not disappoint.
Harissa, if you are not familiar, is a North African chili paste made from a blend of roasted red pepper, chilies and spices. From what I can tell, there are as many different recipes for harissa as there are spices in Morocco. At it’s best, harissa is all-at-once smokey and sultry and acidic and spicy. Increasingly, you can find harissa at specialty grocery stores. However, buying it is a game of chance. One brand is sweet and very red-pepper-focused while the next is dense and deep and spicy-pepper-focused.
Which is why I started making my own and after experimenting with many different peppers and spices, came up with this recipe. It’s simple, uses spices that are relatively easy to find and still delivers on complexity. I like my harissa with a little spicy kick so I use a good amount of cayenne. You can always pull back a bit if that’s not your thing.
I love the versatility of this flavorful sauce. It is equally at home stirred into some scrambled eggs as it is spread on roasted salmon or combined with yogurt as a dip. Recently, I turned it into a kind of romesco sauce by stirring in a bunch of chopped, toasted almonds and chopped parsley. It was sublime alongside a grilled steak for dinner.
Make a batch. Use it on everything. You will not be sorry.
- 2 red bell peppers
- 2 teaspoons caraway seeds
- ¾ teaspoon grated garlic
- 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
- 1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 3 tablespoons ancho chili powder
- 2 teaspoon cayenne (or adjust to taste)
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Place the bell peppers over a live gas flame and turn often until charred on all sides. Place in a bowl, cover with a towel and set aside for 15-20 minutes until cooled enough to handle. Once cool, rub away and discard the blackened skin of the peppers. Remove and discard the stem and seeds.
- Meanwhile, place the caraway seeds in a small, dry pan over high heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until they are fragrant. Remove immediately from the pan.
- Place the roasted pepper flesh in a food processor or blender. Add the toasted caraway, tomato paste, garlic, chili powder, paprika, cayenne, cumin, lemon juice, olive oil and salt. Blend until smooth.
- Store, refrigerated, in a sealed jar or container for up to two weeks.
- Combine ½ cup harissa with ½ cup chopped parsley and ½ cup finely chopped toasted almonds. Stir in 1 tablespoon sherry or red wine vinegar.