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Recipe: Autumn’s Red Peppers, Hot and Sweet, for Harissa; Not Your Mother’s Chile Paste

This untraditional harissa is made of roasted chiles, including Italian sweet peppers as well as hot cayenne and poblanos, pureed with tomato, garlic and spices.

This untraditional harissa is made of roasted chiles, including Italian sweet peppers as well as hot cayenne and poblanos, pureed with tomato, garlic and spices.

Lately I’m on a Moroccan kick.

Maybe it’s the suddenly shivery evenings, or talking with Hich about Moroccan spices, but right now I’m craving savory braised lamb, chicken tagine with green olives, carrots and preserved lemon, and couscous with autumn vegetables such as pumpkin, small red potatoes and turnips.

These delicately spiced dishes kick into high gear when served with a dollop of harissa, the classic North African chile paste.

Harissa is a staple in the kitchens of Tunisia and Algeria, where spoonfuls of the hot stuff are liberally swirled into all sorts of pasta dishes, as well as soups and stews. In Morocco, however–as in Libya and Sicily (which, I was surprised to discover, has a strong Arab current in its cuisine)–the chile paste tends to be used as a condiment, served on the side, to be added at the diner’s discretion.

In A Mediterranean Feast, scholar Clifford A. Wright says that the correct spelling is actually harisa, with one “s.” It comes from an Arabic word meaning “to break into pieces,” which is done by “pounding hot peppers in a mortar.” Wright’s recipe, like many others, involves soaking dried peppers—he combines mild Anaheims and spicier Mexican guajillos—in hot water until they are soft, then blending them to a smooth paste with garlic and olive oil. At the end he stirs in freshly ground coriander and caraway seeds for added flavor.

For years I’ve kept bright yellow tubes of commercially prepared harissa (sorry, Dr. Wright, I’m reverting to the other spelling) in the refrigerator, using dollops of the paste in untraditional ways to enliven everything from canned soup to pot roast and homemade corned beef. Oh, yes, and it’s great with couscous and rich North African soups and stews.

Ready-made harissa varies widely in flavor.
Le Cabanon, from France, is just mildly spicy, the heat of the chiles softened by vegetables such as tomatoes, carrots, turnips and beets. Le Phare du Cap Bon, on the other hand, is a sizzler, made of nothing more than fiery red chiles, garlic, coriander, caraway and salt. You can find these and other pastes online and in Middle Eastern food shops.

And yet…..Right now we’re at the tail end of the glorious local chile crop. Farmer’s markets across the Carolinas have tables piled high with sweet red peppers, both Italian and Bell, and with hotter red ripe jalapenos and cayennes. In my own garden, I left dozens of stunted poblano chiles on the bush, hoping they’d get bigger. No such luck, but those that survived the birds have also turned a dark delicious red. Even the hottest chiles have a sun-warmed, fruity, end of season sweetness that mellows their flavor, making it more nuanced and alluring.

What a wonderful, if non-traditional, harissa these fresh ripe chiles would make, I thought.

So on Sunday I roasted a pound of mixed peppers, both sweet and hot, over the flame of the gas stove until they were blistered all over, then put them in a plastic bag to steam. Alongside the peppers, I also roasted a medium ripe tomato and a few cloves of garlic in a cast iron skillet. Tomato is not ordinarily added to harissa, but I thought that a bit would add roundness and depth without announcing its presence too stridently.

After peeling and seeding the chiles, I pureed them in the food processor with roasted garlic and just a little of the tomato until it was smooth but still lightly textured. While the mixture was whirling around, I added some ground coriander and caraway. Caraway seeds have a wonderfully fresh, pungent, aromatic flavor and their aroma is nostril-clearing, but they are also tough and very hard to grind. I did the best I could with my Krups, then added the nubbly powder to the chile puree where it seemed to vanish into the mix.

This is not your mother’s harissa—but it is amazingly good: fiery for sure, with sweet, mellow undertones and the lingering scent of caraway. The perfect condiment for early fall.

Harissa Made with Fresh, Roasted Chiles, Coriander and Caraway

Makes about 1-1/4 cups chile paste

Ingredients:

1 pound fresh red, ripe chiles, both sweet and hot, mixed according to your taste (I used about 6 ounces hot chiles and 10 ounces sweet peppers)
1 ripe tomato
6 garlic cloves, unpeeled
Salt to taste
1 teaspoon coriander seed
¾ teaspoon caraway seed
Extra virgin olive oil to cover

Method:

1. Roast the chiles over the flame of a gas burner, or on a gas or charcoal grill, until they are blistered all over. (If using small skinny peppers like cayennes, do not let them blacken—there is very little flesh on these peppers, making it hard to remove charred skin and have any flesh left for the harissa.) Place the peppers in a plastic bag and let them steam for 10 to 15 minutes.
2. While the chiles are steaming, roast the tomato and the unpeeled cloves of garlic in a cast iron skillet over medium heat. When the skin of the tomato is browned and blistered, and the garlic is soft to the touch, remove them to a plate. Peel the skin off the tomato, squeeze out the seeds and juice, and set aside. Peel the garlic and set aside.
3. Remove the chiles from the plastic bag. Pull off the stems, rub off the skin and remove the seeds. If the seeds are clingy, very briefly run the chiles under running water—do not rinse or you will wash the flavor away. Set aside.
4. In a spice grinder, grind the coriander and caraway seeds as finely as you can, without letting the grinder heat up too much. (Otherwise the volatile oils will dissipate.)
5. Combine the roasted chiles, garlic and ¼ cup of tomato pulp in a food processor along with the ground spices. Puree until the mixture is smooth but still textured. Add salt to taste, along with more tomato pulp if desired
6. Decant into a jar and cover with a film of olive oil. Fresh harissa will last in the refrigerator for two to three days, but is best is used within 24 hours.

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