Crucial Condiments: Spicy Red Harissa

Spicy Red Harissa. Photo Credit: Heather Platt

Spicy Red Harissa. Photo Credit: Heather Platt

When I was a little girl my family moved to Texas for two years. My father was an engineer for IBM, which I later came to realize stood for “I’ve Been Moved” rather than “International Business Machines.” We moved five time before I entered Kindergarten. The normal reaction to this is not positive. “How terrible to uproot families!” Friends of my parents would say. But I remember those years as exciting adventures that the Platt family embraced with nothing short of enthusiasm. We built a pool to entertain ourselves (and survive the 110 degree summers). It was the mid 1980s so my dad bought a shiny red Mazda RX-7 sports car, the first car to have a “compact disc player,” pop-up headlights, and vanity plates that read “Platt” to match the flashiness of the setting and the era. We would speed to Baskins Robbins in that car, making sharp turns and  blasting Whitney Houston’s latest album. I was four and would sit in the passenger seat (pre-car seat regulations I guess) and my dad would let me shift the gears as the shiny red car sped up and slowed down. Texas was awesome. But one of the many things our stint in Austin exposed our quintet of rural Vermonters to, in addition to big hair and shiny cars, was spicy food. My brother and sister and I were so fascinated by it that we would gather with our next door neighbor and have spicy salsa eating contests. Whoever could withstand the most heat won.  The native Texans always triumphed. And though my parents never really developed a love, much less any tolerance for spice; my brother and sister and I took it with us for life. Harissa has nothing to do with Texas…except that it’s supposed to be spicy. And for those who never broke in their spice tolerance with salsa eating contests, it’s easily adjusted for the faint-of-spice, use less cayenne and few jalapeños.  Harissa is a Tunisian condiment that is good on EVERYTHING.  I love brushing it onto grilled chicken thighs. It’s great on roasted carrots. Serve it with meat, fish, rice or couscous. Your dinner guests will become obsessed and the conversation at the table will be about nothing but the creamy spicy red sauce. After a recent dinner party my friend sent me a text that read, “Harissa is my new ketchup.” That’s quite an upgrade if you ask me. Enjoy! Heather

Harissa. Photo Credit: Heather Platt

Harissa. Photo Credit: Heather Platt

Red Harissa yields 1 cup

  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 2 tablespoons smoked paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/4 teaspoons cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds
  • 1 red onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 1-3 jalapeños, depending on desired spiciness seeded and chopped
  • 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons tomato paste
  • 1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • kosher salt

Preheat broiler. Place the red bell pepper on a baking sheet in the oven under the broiler for 25 minutes, using tongs to turn occasionally until blackened on all sides. Remove from oven and let cool. When the pepper is cool enough to handle, remove the skin and discard the seeds. Place a small dry skillet over low heat and toast the caraway seeds for 1 minute. Remove from the pan and grind to a powder in a mortar and pestle. In a large cast iron pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Saute the onions and jalapeños for 10 minutes. Turn the heat down to medium, add the garlic and cook for 3 more minutes. Place all ingredients in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth. Transfer to a bowl.

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