Thursday, November 05, 2009

A Tale of Two Harissas

My latest food obsession is harissa, otherwise known as North African chili paste. In case you are the type who would run screaming after hearing the word "chili", let me assure you that it isn't terribly spicy, unless of course, you want to make it that way. It's more like a little sweet, a little smokey, a little spicy, a little salty, and bursting w/ tantalizing tastes thanks to the spice blend which features coriander, cumin, caraway, mint and lemon. There is a LOT of flavor packed into a teeny dollop, and every molecule of it is heavenly. (I strongly recommend clicking on the "harissa" link above and reading the article "Harissa, mon amour" from the L.A. Times, which describes harissa much more beautifully than I can!)

I recently bought a small jar of the Alili brand harissa, and it was supremely delicious. My honey and I polished off the jar over the span of a mere few days. A spoonful here, a dollop there, and it quickly disappeared. It was so good that I decided this would now be a must-have staple in our kitchen, but at $7.99 a jar, I'd darn well better learn how to make my own! And so today, I did, with a little help from my friends.

I'd been eyeing the harissa recipe in (what else?) Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. But I also sent a request out to my food-obsessed friends on Facebook asking who had an exquisite recipe, and the lovely and multi-talented Jenya sent me a link to this Saveur recipe. I spent the better part of this afternoon making the two recipes side by side, and no offense to Deborah Madison or anyone else, but the Saveur recipe turned out to be the champion.

Both recipes feature dried guajillo and New Mexico chiles, plus garlic, coriander, cumin, caraway seeds, salt and olive oil. But the Saveur recipe also features mint and lemon, and, perhaps more importantly, calls for smaller amounts of all the spices. And somehow, using smaller amounts makes the flavor work better as a whole. Less is more! It's like the difference between a bunch of musicians playing too many notes and stepping all over each other's toes, and, a symphony. Yes, I do believe the Saveur recipe is that good.

I made a couple of slight modifications to the recipe because I didn't have quite enough New Mexico chiles; instead of the eight that it called for, I used four of those plus four California chiles. I must admit, they looked very similar when dried, and I have no idea how it may have altered the taste, but it sure tasted good! Additionally, while the chiles were soaking, I dropped the garlic cloves in to soak as well, in order to take off a bit of that raw garlic edge, for as much as I may love the raw garlic, it doesn't love me back *quite* so much.

Enough blathering - onto the recipe! Long may you enjoy it - I know I'm going to!

8 dried New Mexico chiles, seeded and stemmed
8 dried Guajillo chiles, seeded and stemmed
1/2 t. caraway seeds
1/4 t. coriander seeds
1 t. dried mint leaves
3 T. extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
1 1/2 t. kosher salt
5 cloves garlic
Juice of 1 lemon

1. Put the chiles into a bowl and cover with boiling water, letting sit for about 30 minutes or until softened. After about 5-10 minutes of soaking, drop the garlic cloves into the bowl and let them soak along w/ the chiles. If you don't mind your garlic raw, then wait to add the garlic to the food processor later.

2. In a dry skillet, toast the caraway, coriander & cumin over medium heat, shaking the pan constantly, until fragrant. Let cool a bit and transfer to a spice grinder. Add the mint and grind it all to a fine powder. Set aside.

3. Drain the chiles & garlic and transfer to a food processor. Add the ground spices, olive oil, salt, garlic and lemon juice. If you desire more heat, now's the time to add a little cayenne. Puree, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl. When smooth, transfer to a clean jar, topping off with more olive oil after each use.

Now that you've got it, what are you gonna do with it?! Here are just a few suggestions - stir it into rice or lentils or chic peas or soup to add another dimension of flavor, or spread it onto bread or crackers. Use it as a rub on whatever kind of meat or fish you like. Add a little plop as the secret ingredient in your chili! You get the idea and I bet you've got a few ideas of your own so if so, please send 'em my way!


In The Mood For Food said...

i have to try this! been experimenting with a lot of Mexican and Southwest flavors lately

Soup and Song said...

Last night for dinner, I stirred some harissa into a bowl of pasta, black lentils and pan seared zucchini. It was quite good!!

Shutcha said...

omg this sounds good. i am inspired - i have a lot of chilis from my garden i don't know what to do with.