One of the things I love the most about my Spice group is that it forces me to step out of my comfort zone and encourages me to be creative with new ingredients. It also helps me add to my increasing repertoire of things that I make myself rather than buy pre-made.
Harissa is no exception. It has been floating in and out of my radar for the past ten years or so. But whenever I looked at the tubes or cans of it that I saw for sale at the Middle Eastern stores where I found it, all I could see were the HOT PEPPERS at the top of the ingredients list. I like spicy foods, but I fall on the wimpy side of the tolerance range. I like to add a little heat to my flavors more than I like adding a little flavor to the heat.
I also discovered years ago that I am not a fan of jarred and canned prepared salsas and sauces. There is something about the changes that canning brings to food that I do not like. It takes away the freshness, and everything has a musky aftertaste that diminishes the natural flavors of the other ingredients. So just from looking at the pictures on the outsides of the jars and tubes of harissa I was pretty sure I would find that they had too much heat and the wrong kind of flavor for me. In the end, harissa became another one of those flavors that stayed on my "someday I will try this" list, and I was quite happy to let it continue to float somewhere down near the bottom of that list. Until last month, when the coordinator of our Spice Group announced that harissa would be the spice for our March potluck.
I knew pretty much from the get-go that I was going to make my own, so while I was not particularly thrilled at the choice of spices it always makes me happy when I make something new. I rolled up my figurative sleeves and pulled out my favorite spice books and looked at several recipes online so I could compare them to see which ingredients are required, which are preferred, and which would be best avoided.
All of the recipes I found contained at least two different kinds of chilies, garlic, cumin, coriander and olive oil. Many of the recipes contained caraway seeds and some called for lemon juice. One or two had mint. Some included roasted red peppers and onions.
As I mentioned earlier, I prefer some heat to my flavor rather than flavor to my heat, so I decided to use all of those spices. I was not sure about the mint, but I figured if I used just enough to add to the flavor without being in any way obvious it would be a good thing. The additional roasted red pepper and onion seemed more Eastern European than Northern African to me so I decided not to use those.
The next question was which chilies to use. I was somewhat limited to the chilies that were available to me and finally decided on guajillo chilies, which were in many of the recipes that I saw, and something called Chilies Japones with which I was not at all familiar but they were small and red and the only non-Mexican chilies they had at the store that day and the package said they were hot so I figured they should work.
It turned out to be quite easy to make the harissa, and the end result was quite delicious. It is as hot as I imagined it would be, but it is also full of flavor. For the potluck, I made bread with the harissa swirled throughout it. It was quite pretty and surprisingly good. For myself, I am already finding many uses for it. It is delicious on just about anything and the heat dissipates throughout the whole dish and enhances it the way a good hot sauce should. I already find that I cannot imagine life without it.
If you decide to make your own, and I strongly recommend that you do, the main piece of advice I would give is to make sure that you process it until it is completely smooth. The first batch I made looked good in the bowl but as soon as I started using it I found myself spitting out large pieces of the chilies. When I made the second batch I threw the first batch in with it and made sure to process everything until all of the chilies were well and truly blended in with the other ingredients. It made all of the difference.
Home Cookin Chapter: Spices Spreads Dips Sauces
8 dried guajillo chilies, stemmed and seeded (about 2 oz)
16 to 20 chilies japones, or other small hot chilies (about 1 oz)
1 tsp caraway seeds
1/2 tsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp dried mint leaves (optional)
3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
1-1/2 tsp kosher salt
5 cloves garlic
Juice of 1 lemon
Put chilies in a large bowl and cover with boiling water. Cover and let sit until softened, at least 20 minutes.
Heat the caraway, coriander and cumin in a small skillet over medium heat until fragrant, about four minutes. Keep the seeds moving in the skilllet the whole time. Place the spices in a grinder with the mint and grind to a fine powder.
Drain the chlies and place them in a food processor. Add the spices, salt, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil and puree until the mixture is smooth, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl. This will take 4 to 5 minutes as you want to make sure there are no large flakes of the dried chilies in the mixture.
Store the harissa in a glass jar covered with a layer of olive oil. Refrigerate, and replace the oil after every use. Makes approximately 1 cup.
adapted from recipe found at http://www.saveur.com/article/Recipes/Harissa
Exported from Home Cooking v.8.66 (www.mountain-software.com)