Harissa is a term that covers a variety of chili-based condiments originating in North Africa. Because I am not a food historian or any form of authority on what goes on in North Africa, I am going to discuss this sauce in purely practical terms. The reality is that this stuff is tasty and versatile enough that we, generally, try to keep a jar or two of it in the refrigerator at all times. It has deep, complex smoky flavor, musky overtones, and varies widely in the amount of heat that it brings to the table. The batch that we are currently working through is actually quite mild in the heat department. Sure, you could blow your sauce out with heat from the chilies, but I think that the complex interplay of the spices, the chilies, and final notes of citrus are more interesting.
Which brings me to another thing that I love about harissa; it is very much adaptable to individual taste and style of cooking. If you start with someone else’s base recipe, you will find within about two batches that you have successfully altered it to match your own perception of how it should taste. This is a situation where you should really listen to your instincts with respect to the proportion and amount of each ingredient. Let’s take a closer look at how this sauce is built.
At the core of the sauce is a combination of dried chili pods. Luckily, dried chiles are readily available in grocery stores in the American West (can’t speak to their availability in other areas). They store well, and once you have them softened, the rest is easy. Don’t get too hung up on the type if it is not available in your area, as the pods you use will end up being a matter of taste, to some degree. In order to soften your chilies, place them in a medium to large sauce pan with enough water to just cover. Bring the water to a boil, remove from heat and cover tightly with at lid. Let set for between 1/2 and 1 hour.
Drain your chilies (reserving the fluid) and place them on a cutting board. They should be quite soft. Remove the stems and discard the seeds. At this point, you can either use them as-is or, like us, scrape most of the pulp from the inside of the skin for use. We tend to separate the skin from the pulp as a matter of taste because we don’t like the coarser texture; either way is legit. Place the chilies (or pulp) in a food processor with about 1/2 cup of the reserved fluid and process to break up the chilies. Add the olive oil and the spices and continue processing until smooth. Add the vinegar at the end and process to combine. The cilantro and lemon juice are stirred in at the end.
Taste the finished product and see if it needs more salt. When you have finished adjusting, place the harissa in an airtight jar for storage in the refrigerator. Float a thin film of olive oil on the surface to seal it. It should keep for several months.
As I alluded to above, this is a nicely complex and extremely versatile sauce. It can be used as a rub for meats, a sauce for frying legumes, an accept topping for soup, or a spread for bread. Much like tomato-based ketchup, Sriracha, or Frank’s Red Hot, it is a sauce that can accent or improve many dishes. If you come up with an innovative use, drop us a line or leave a comment, we would love to hear from you.
- 2 ounces dried chili negros pods
- 2 ounces dried New Mexican chili pods
- 1 ounce dried pasilla chili pods
- ½ ounce dried chipotle chilies
- ¾ cup olive oil
- 2 tsp. kosher salt
- 1 tsp. crushed black pepper
- 1½ tsp. ground cumin
- ½ tsp. cayenne (adjust to taste)
- 5 cloves garlic, pureed
- ¼ cup cider or wine vinegar
- 4 Tbs. chopped cilantro
- 2 Tbs. lemon juice
- Place chili pods in a large sauce pan with just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, cover and remove from heat. Set aside for ½ to 1 hour to soften.
- When softened, drain chilies, reserving fluid. Remove and discard stems and seeds. Scrape softened pulp from the inside of the chili skin with a spoon and place in a food processor.
- Add ½ cup of the reserved fluid to the chili pulp and process to break up. Add olive oil and process until smooth. Add the spices and continue processing into a smooth paste. Add the vinegar at the end to combine and puree for another 20 to 30 seconds.
- Pour mixture into a bowl and stir in the chopped cilantro and the lemon juice. Place in an airtight jar for storage, covering the top of the harissa with a thin film of olive oil.
- Will keep, refrigerated for 2 to 3 months.