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I Spice: Harissa

Harissa's flavor is as fiery as its color. (

How much do I love harissa? So much that I always overdo it. I'll use it to excess on everything in sight, then have to take a break from it for a while. I use it in stews, soups and sandwiches; as a topping for pizzas; to boost flavor in pastas; even on french fries. It truly is addictive. Well, for me, anyway.

This lovely red paste/sauce/condiment hails from North Africa and is prepared with chili peppers, ground coriander, cumin and olive oil. As with almost any other condiment, regional variations are the norm. And fair warning: It is super hot and spicy. You can make it mild, of course, by using milder peppers, but the heat is part of its charm.

Recipe Included

If you don't want to prepare your own, you can find harissa sold in tubes and jars, and in many different heat levels. Whether you make it or buy it, the best place to store it is in the refrigerator, where it will keep for months.

Award-winning cookbook author Joan Nathan, whose work appears in the New York Times food section, shares my love for harissa. “It is a great spice combination, very versatile, and while I do make my own, there are some great brands on the market, especially Pereg Gourmet," she told me. "It has lots of red peppers, lots of garlic and cilantro, among other things.” What's not to love in that combination?

Though harissa generally is considered to be Tunisian, Nathan said she has tasted it in Israel and France.

For such a spicy condiment, harissa has a surprisingly large number of fans. Cookbook author Patricia Tanumihardja told me she “fell hard" for it when she first made a Moroccan stuffed shad dish whose date-and-almond filling was seasoned with harissa. I love local chef Janis McLean’s enthusiastic suggestion of using it as “a go-to flavor boost . . . in aioli . . . in a spread . . . instant yum!" Sonia F. Bañuelos, a Twitter pal who goes by SaffronPaisley, purees harissa with capers and fresh cilantro: "I love it with grilled meats and frittatas or a Spanish tortilla." A D.C.-area food lover, Daniel Korn, sings the praises of a spicy hummus with harissa from Cava, a local restaurant, that is now sold at local farmers markets and select Whole Foods Markets.

Blogger Lisa Rosen e-mailed me several wonderful and simple ways to incorporate harissa into everyday cooking:

1. I smear it on sandwiches all the time. Especially nice with cheddar or Muenster, for some reason. (It's good on a plain old turkey sandwich but makes a grilled cheese transcendent.)

2. I smear it on a whole chicken before roasting it (only if my kids aren't eating; they don't love it). I use it as sort of a sauce/dip for plain grilled chicken breasts.

3. I find it appropriate on all kinds of vegetables-over-couscous sorts of dinners.

4. Things I haven't tried it with, but probably will sometime: eggs, grilled corn, a mild fish, roasted potatoes.

5. I currently have three variations in my fridge: a plain one, one with preserved lemon and another with ground rose petals. Not impressed with that last one, but the preserved lemon is fabulous!

As you can see, harissa can be used as a condiment or as a recipe ingredient. Either way, Nathan advises restraint when using the hot variety: “It is very strong. You should use a scant, tiny teaspoon of it and stir it into other things, like mayonnaise or dressings,” she says.

— Monica Bhide

Makes about 1 cup

MAKE AHEAD: The harissa needs a few days' refrigeration before it is ready to be served. It can be refrigerated, tightly covered, for up to 3 months.

Adapted from Joan Nathan's "The Foods of Israel Today" (Knopf, 2001).

4 ounces (about 18 total) dried hot red New Mexico chili peppers
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
7 medium or 8 cloves garlic
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon coarse salt, or to taste

Cut off the stems and soak the peppers in warm water until soft; drain and squeeze out any excess water. Grind them, as North African Jews do, in a meat grinder, or puree in a food processor, along with 1/4 cup of the oil, the garlic, cumin, coriander and salt. The consistency should be a thick puree, the color of deep red salmon. Transfer to a jar and pour the remaining oil on top. Cover tightly and refrigerate for a few days before using. Taste and adjust salt as needed before serving.

When it is ready to use, the harissa will appear less opaque. Use sparingly, as it is quite potent.

Per tablespoon: 85 calories, 1 g protein, 5 g carbohydrates, 7 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 140 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar

By Jane Touzalin  |  July 31, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice , Recipes  | Tags: I Spice, Monica Bhide, harissa, recipes  
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Definitely will try this recipe, as it is a little less intimidating than some I have seen. As an alternative, can you recommend a local source for Harissa? I've checked Whole Foods to no avail. Thanks so much.

Posted by: ostrlao | July 31, 2009 8:06 PM | Report abuse

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