Harissa: Just try this, please


It was an unassuming dark little blob, nudged onto the corner of an oval platter of creamy hummus, almost hidden beneath a tangle of long cooked greens (chard maybe?!) and a scattering of currants. It’s not like I’m unfamiliar with harissa. I’ve had it on a couple of other occasions. Swirled into creme fraiche, harissa came with a heap of blisteringly hot matchstick french fries at one of my favorite restaurants in Portland. So, I was inspired to buy a jar as I tried to copy another restaurant dish for my birthday party last fall. The prepared harissa, though, was a disappointment and it kind of wrecked the whole meal for me. The little jar with the bright yellow Moroccan pattern on the label looked promising but tasted one note: hot-sweet and tomato-y. No sultry bitter complex fire, which is what I wanted. What I remembered from the Portland restaurant. That little jar has been languishing in my fridge long forgotten, and I bet I’ll toss it next time I see it.

So last week, when my friends ordered the chickpea puree at Sitka & Spruce, I was non-plussed when I saw the harissa, a wall flower hanging out on the edge of the plate, not even seeming to merit mention on the menu. I’ll pay no attention to that, I thought. I’d forgotten how enamored I’d been initially. The puree was fantastic though – I think there was a smattering of walnut or walnut oil, but toasty not bitter like the bitterness you find in tahini. So I ventured toward the harissa, which was darker, less tomato-y looking than the one I bought.

I tore off a piece of the rustic, slighty sour bread and dabbed it into the blond puree, then dipped the tip of my knife into the dark daub. Scent preceded taste: smoke! Then a bite. Oh, so that’s what it should taste like! Here was deft bitterness and deep smoldering heat. A muted lemon note. A complex counterpoint to the creamy foil of the chickpeas. So now I’m infatuated; this is a tiny bit inconvenient because harissa doesn’t seem to be the most kid-friendly condiment.

But therein lies the beauty!  Hummus=healthy, kid friendly albeit slightly bland snack food. Hummus+harissa=sophisticated, sultry fare perfect for grown-ups. Potato chips=blandly attractive and kid-friendly. Harissa+creme fraiche+potato chips=spellbindingly cool, adult nibble, perfect with cocktails. Do you see where this is heading?! I hope I am not overstating the allure of harissa. (I am often guilty of overselling.)

The first batch I made was too small. First of all, the four adults at dinner ate the whole batch in one go; second of all, it was so small my food processor couldn’t whirl it around effectively. I ended up chopping it finely with my chef’s knife and that was fine but if you’re in a hurry, definitely double the recipe. You’ll certainly eat the whole batch before the week is out. Now that I know how easy it is to make harissa, I’ll never buy it again.

And now I can revisit that so nearly wonderful birthday dish and share it with you next time. It was on the very verge of incredible and with this harissa, I know it will be perfect.

Rosemary skewered lamb with Israeli couscous, preserved lemon, hazelnuts and harissa


  • 12 dried chile de àrbol
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp ground caraway
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  1. Soak the chilies in hot water for 30 minutes.
  2. Drain and cut in half lengthwise. With the tip of a sharp knife, scrape away the seeds and discard.
  3. In the food processor, whirl the chilies, garlic, salt and oil. Purée until smooth. Add the coriander, caraway and cumin and continue to process until smooth.
  4. This will keep for a month in the refrigerator in an airtight container with a slick of olive oil over the top. But I seriously doubt it will last that long!

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