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.
- 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
- Soak the chilies in hot water for 30 minutes.
- Drain and cut in half lengthwise. With the tip of a sharp knife, scrape away the seeds and discard.
- 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.
- 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!