According to Google Trends, we get newly fascinated with harissa every January, like clockwork. Search interest in lots of ingredients spikes in the new year, when people resolve to cook more, but why harissa? Consider all the things it goes well with: chickpeas, cauliflower, yogurt, tomatoes, chicken. Good-for-you whole foods that taste good, too. We see similar January spikes for coriander and olive oil, two foundational components of the North African chili paste. In other words: Harissa is one of the ways we flavor our food when we want to be good to ourselves. That’s a nice thing, and reason enough to pay closer attention to this earthy, spicy condiment.
What Is Harissa?
Ubiquitous in Tunisian, Libyan, Algerian, and Moroccan pantries, harissa is a paste of red chilies blended with olive oil and spices, such as coriander and caraway. It can be lip-searingly hot or barely tingly, twangy with lemon or vinegar or subtly smoky, loose and salsa-like or a thick, chunky paste. Chilies arrived in North Africa around the 16th century, and since then, harissa has been the region’s chief method of preserving them.
Making harissa at home is easy: Roast fresh red chilies until their skins char and their flesh collapses, or grind dried peppers into a powder, rehydrating them with water over heat. Then blend the peppers with salt and toasted spices, oil, and lemon juice until it's all smooth. For milder harissa, use larger peppers and stick to fresh varieties; for an intense version, seek out fiery dried chilies, like árbol, guajillo, and pasilla. Mix and match pepper varieties to suit your taste.
Or, you can skip all that and buy a jar. Mina makes a commendable all-purpose harissa that’s loose enough to use as a dip all on its own, while Mediterranean Delicacy’s pungent paste is a thick concentrate designed to be loosened with lemon, oil, yogurt, or hot water as needed. I find that one handy for spice rubs and applications in which you don’t want a lot of added moisture, such as dry-heat cooking methods.
If you want to dive into the harissa deep end, try New York Shuk’s range of harissa products, from a classic paste to one brightened with preserved lemon, to a dry rub or even a paste perfumed with rose petals. (Some North African recipes call for saffron, too.)
Once you have a jar or two, here’s how to make the most of it.
As an All-Purpose Condiment
Harissa is versatile stuff, on the order of ketchup and sriracha. Like both of those condiments, it’s magical with eggs, especially fried ones with crisp, lacy whites. My Sephardic Jewish in-laws serve it with poached salmon; if they were the grilling types, they’d keep it around for grilled kebabs as well. Smear it on a burger, either on its own or mixed into aioli. Stir some into shakshuka, and pack it into your falafel sandwich.
I really like harissa as a dip for crudités or something fried. Blended with tahini and yogurt, it makes an excellent dip for fresh spring peas. Or, try our harissa Ranch on fried chicken sandwiches, as a dip for Buffalo wings, and, of course, on any salad.
If you like plain harissa as a condiment, go for it, though I usually loosen mine up with labne, or purée it with crumbled feta, fresh herbs, lemon, and olive oil. Olives are generally good with harissa’s briny heat; this dip combines the two with carrots, for a rich orange spread to smear onto celery sticks or your next sandwich.
As a Marinade and Spice Rub
Harissa-as-condiment is good entry-level stuff, but to unlock its full potential, think of it as a marinade starter kit. After all, harissa has all the components of a good marinade: salt, acid (either added with lemon juice or endemic to the chilies themselves), spices, and fat to transfer fat-soluble flavors.
You can use it as a marinade all on its own, such as in this lamb recipe (just substitute the herb and spice rub with thick harissa paste), or dilute the harissa with yogurt for a milder, tangier effect with chicken. It’s also a natural choice for meatballs and kofte, adding moisture as well as multifaceted heat.
As a Roasted-Vegetable Booster
As good as harissa may be with lamb and chicken, my favorite applications are totally meat-free. The basic formula: firm, hearty vegetables, like carrots and turnips; dry, intense heat, via roasting or grilling; and finishing touches of acid, dairy, herbs, or all three.
Toss cauliflower florets with concentrated harissa paste and olive oil, then roast until golden brown and finish with grated Parmesan and a squeeze of lemon. Or rub some harissa on corn before tossing the cobs on the grill and showering them with herbs. Coat carrots with harissa and roast, then serve with a dollop of crème fraîche. You get the idea.
As a Flavor Bomb for All Your Sauces
Because a spoonful of harissa brings heat, depth, and acidity, it's the perfect way to liven up a long-simmering tomato sauce or pool of braising liquid. We’ve covered shakshuka already, but how about tender braised squid with tomatoes and olives? You can use a similar technique for mussels and clams. Or, take a different tack with your seafood and combine harissa with a buttery beer sauce for plump and savory broiled shrimp.
Eggplant and chickpeas also take well to harissa’s earthy heat. In the summer, I dose a mix of charred eggplant and tomato with harissa, then finish it all with lots of mint. In cooler weather, chickpeas, tomatoes, eggplant, and harissa make an easy, saucy stew. And don’t forget how well it goes with carrots; use it in a puréed soup with carrots and ginger for a smooth and subtle heat.
And Even in Cocktails
Yes, you can even drink your harissa—just dilute with warm water and a squeeze of lemon for all your juice-cleanse needs.
No, please don’t do that. But do stir it into tomato juice with citrus as the base for a hearty, smoky beer sangrita, a rich and bubbly alternative to a Bloody Mary. The harissa’s ruddy, earthy heat gives a perfect kick to a bitter IPA. Ditto for mezcal, such as in this pomegranate cocktail, where harissa’s delicately fiery flavors enhance the agave’s natural smolder.
From moist braises to dry-heat cooking methods to no-heat-at-all ones, there are countless applications where harissa is perfectly at home. No wonder it’s a January favorite. So how about we give it some love year-round, okay?
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