Wednesday, September 21, 2016


Commenting on a post a few weeks ago, blogger Mark Willis suggested making harissa from the harvest of peppers.  My first reaction was 'what the heck is harissa?'   After a brief investigation it looked like harissa is the kind of thing that I like, a hot spicy pepper based paste than can be spread on a multitude of things.  So I gathered up some recipes on line and began looking through them.

The first thing one finds when looking at different preparations is the tremendous variation in the recipes.  So I found two that looked promising and compared them.  One used tomato paste, the other did not.  One used about four times the spice as the other.  You pretty much have to come up with what sounds good to you.  In my case, I don't know if I have ever tried harissa, and if I did, did not know it was.  So I did not really know what harissa is supposed to taste like. You probably just have to try different concoctions to get a sense.   But I had some notion of what a Tunisian pepper paste might taste like.

Here's how I made mine.  It starts with freshly picked ancho and Mama Mia Giallo peppers.  I made grilled pizza a few days ago, a dish that is slowly improving.  Once the pizza was finished the coals were still hot enough to slowly grill the peppers.  The ancho peppers are a modern F1 cultivar, Mosquitero.  It's a terrific variety, stout stems and large peppers, wonderful flavor.

Most recipes call for rehyrating dried ancho chiles, which you can find at the grocer.  Since these were available fresh there was no need.  The flavor of a fire-roasted ancho is sublime, sweet with notes of black currant, chili, and raisin.  The Giallo peppers are sweet and fruity.  After deskinning and removing the seeds all of the anchos and three of the Giallos were put in the blender for the base.

For the spice I used two tablespoons cumin, and one tablespoon each of coriander and caraway.  The seeds were toasted for several minutes in a dry pan, then ground to a powder.  I've found that toasting improves the flavor of cumin, taking away the sharp, green bite that raw cumin has.

The heat came from serrano peppers, which are growing in abundance in the beds.  Cutting the hot peppers open and deseeding was the most labor intensive part of the preparation.  Nitrile gloves are recommended.  It looks like about 25 serranos were used.  I like them ripe, they are hotter and more flavorful than when green.

The deseeded hot peppers were combined with half of a chopped red onion and cooked in extra virgin olive oil at medium/low heat for about eight minutes.  Four finely chopped garlic cloves were added and the mix cooked a few more minutes.

Putting it all together the roasted peppers, serrano/onion mix, spices and juice of a lemon were blended together until smooth. 

There was enough to put in three small plastic tubs.  Since all ingredients were cooked I put two of the tubs in the freezer.  How does it taste?  Quite good in my humble opinion.  It combines bright citrusy flavors with the deeper tastes of cumin and anchos, with a nice layer of heat.  Hot pepper fanatics could add a habanero to the mix to pack a bit more punch.  This morning I made an okra/cheese omelette and spread some of this on the dish.  It's much better than salsa on an egg dish. 


Mark Willis said...

Bravo! I'm glad you had a go at this. I have had commercial harissa a few times, mostly from North African or French sources and really enjoy it. We usually buy a brand called "La Phare du Cap Bon", which comes in a tube like tomato puree, so it is easy to add just a little to a stew or a couscous. I made some of my own last year, but it somehow lacked the punch I wanted, so I need to refine the recipe. Next challenge for you - try to replicate Sambal Oelek (q.v.)!

Mark Willis said...

P.S. This is a link to my attempt to make Harissa last year -

Margaret said...

Sounds delicious! I've tried harissa before but can't really recall what it tastes like, although I'm pretty sure that I liked it. I really like how you combined the hot and sweet peppers - my biggest problem with most of the commercial preparations for spicy sauces/pastes is that they are often too spicy, where the spice overwhelms the flavour. I'll have to add this to my list of things to try.

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