Harissa, the spicy North African paste of chilies, coriander, cumin, garlic, and lemon, inspires sriracha-level obsession in its fans but intimidation in those less familiar. To help you get better acquainted with this sunny, spicy condiment, we asked a panel of chefs from around the country about how best to use it in dishes both mild and bold.
First Up: Homemade Harissa 101
Originally from Missouri, Rachel Dow, the executive chef The Betty, has lived and worked in Chicago for over a decade. She honed her skills at classic restaurants like Perennial, Blackbird, Maude's Liquor Bar, and Avec.
Man, it's the best kind of hot sauce that ever was. We make it from tomatoes, nora chilies, ancho chilies, tomatoes, cumin, garlic, smoked paprika, cayenne, sherry vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, lemons, and anchovies. Toast the chilies and soak them in hot water until they're soft, then spin them and everything else together in a blender or food processor. At one point I realized that harissa freezes great, so you can make great big batches and freeze it in smaller portions to use as you need. Do it once to get it out of the way, and then throw it in stews, braises, couscous, and on sandwiches.
Transcendental Rice Pilaf
Proud Clevelander Jonathon Sawyer has improved the city's dining culture with restaurants like Trentina, The Greenhouse Tavern, and Noodlecat and stadium restaurants Sawyer's Street Frites, Sausage & Peppers, and SeeSaw Pretzel Shoppe. A Food & Wine "Best New Chef" recipient and 2015 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef of the Great Lakes, Sawyer has appeared on Bizarre Foods America with Andrew Zimmern, Iron Chef America, Dinner Impossible, Unique Eats, The Best Thing I Ever Ate, and most recently The Chew.
My family doesn't eat a ton of spices—specifically my kids—but I love heat, so for me harissa falls into late night snack area, when I'm eating by myself, have worked too late, or drank too much. I use it in the sambal/sriracha vein, adding a bunch to rice pilaf or coating leftover brisket in it and making a sandwich. There's only so many times I can put my favorite variations of sriracha on pilaf, so I mix water, whole peeled onions, lemons, and harissa and cook rice pilaf with it. It's amazing. Pilaf has a bad rep for some reason, but properly cooked and fluffed pilaf is transcendental.
Jesse Schenker is the executive chef and owner of The Gander and Recette in New York City. The James Beard Rising Star semifinalist was included in Zagat's "30 Hottest Chefs Under 30," Forbes's "30 Under 30," was named one of the Best New Chefs by New York magazine, and is the author of All or Nothing: One Chef's Appetite for the Extreme.
Harissa is one of those condiments that not only has spice to it, but also has an earthy complexity that you wouldn't get if you just added sriracha or chili paste to a dish. At Recette we have a Hamachi tartare with sea urchin and harissa foam. We steep harissa paste with milk, ginger, and basil, barely bring it to a simmer, then strain it out, so you're left with a seasoned milk with the harissa and the freshness of spices and ginger root. We cool it and charge it in a nitrogen canister, so it's an aerated cloud of earthy spice grounded by the beautiful flavor of fatty hamachi.
Super Simple Crockpot Chicken
Chef Gavin Kaysen worked at Domaine Chandon in Yountville, CA, L'Auberge de Lavaux in Switzerland, L'Escargot in London, and El Bizcocho in San Diego, where he was named a Food & Wine Magazine Best New Chef. He then earned a James Beard Rising Star Chef award and Michelin star working with Daniel Boulud at Café Boulud in New York City, before moving to Minneapolis and opening his first solo venture, Spoon and Stable. Kaysen was also a Bocuse d'Or contender in 2007, and as head coach recently led 2015 Team USA to a record-breaking second place victory, the first medal for the United States in the history of the competition.
My wife has rediscovered cooking with the crockpot since we moved back to Minneapolis, as there aren't as many great takeout restaurants here and we have to prepare for dinner in advance. I make a harissa paste, rub it into chicken legs, and throw it into the crockpot with onions, turnips, potatoes, and apricots. I've convinced my children that it's ketchup, so I just make it less spicy for them. We do it all the time—I literally did it again this morning.
Spicy Mayo and More
Brad Farmerie is the executive chef behind beloved New York spots such as Michelin-starred PUBLIC, neighborhood gem Saxon + Parole, and cocktail dens The Daily and Madam Geneva, as well as The Thomas and Fagiani's Bar in Napa Valley, CA, Saxon + Parole in Moscow, and the GENUINE restaurants.
My favorite application is so easy: harissa mayo. Blend a scoop of mayo and a scoop of harissa, then taste and adjust as you like. Pairing it with a whole roasted leg of lamb is super delicious, or drizzle it on roasted veggies that remind you of the Middle East, like eggplant and zucchini. It goes great with roasted potatoes, or you could just mix it with ketchup. I want my children to eat interesting foods, so it's a great way to hide it at the start—it allows them to try new things without being too daring. Plain harissa in scrambled eggs is a gateway, too. You get the flavors without being overwhelmed.
Subtly Spicy Pasta
Perfectionist Tony Messina graduated as valedictorian of his class at Cambridge Culinary School before working with Ken Oringer at Uni in Boston. As sashimi chef, Tony turns out beautifully plated sashimi dishes that pull flavors and ingredients from his Mediterranean roots.
Folding wet harissa into homemade pasta dough adds a little fire to a dish. It adds spice without you having to use a spicy sauce to dress the pasta, and is versatile enough to pair with braised meats or even shellfish.
Harissa comes in a wet paste or a dry powder, with varying degrees of spiciness. So you vary the amount you use depending on how spicy you want the dish to be. If you get wet harissa, fold it into your eggs and continue as you normally would. If you have the dry kind, mix it with the flour. It works with any sort of white fish; and it's great with clams, mussels, and chicken. I did it with braised wild boar with cocoa and cherries, so the braise plus the pasta was kind of a play on spicy chocolate. I haven't found anything I don't like it with... yet. I'm sure there is something, but it's pretty versatile.
A Crunchy, Spicy Popcorn Topper
Classically trained in Italy, Amalia Scatena uses refined Mediterranean techniques, seasonal ingredients, and local products at her Charleston newcomer Cannon Green.
I love harissa, especially the dry powdered version. I sprinkle it on popcorn instead of blackening spice, since it has more complex flavors and a bit of heat, so harissa-spiced popcorn is really, really good. I also love pumpkin seeds and nuts in salads, so I'll coat pumpkin seeds in extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, and harissa spice, toast them in the oven until they pop and turn crunchy, then put them on top of a salad.