My Harissa Addiction

Is there a clinic for this?

Harissa in a Mortar and Pestle
Harissa in a Mortar and Pestle
Image by Author

The aroma that rises to meet you spells it all out, even as you think you’re the one telling the story.

One of the first things I learned about, when I worked at a Moroccan restaurant way back when, was preserved lemon. Whereas harissa itself is actually somewhat new, in the long history of Moroccan food, preserved lemon is ubiquitous in Moroccan cuisine, and is tied to it in a pervasive and defining way. It’s almost as synonymous with Moroccan food as the tagine. And the first thing I learned about preserved lemons? They take 30 days to make, and no cheating. Don’t you hate it when you open a cookbook to make something and find out what you were supposed to do ahead of time? It’s so aggravating! (So I’ll tell you: If you’re going to make a meat or chicken dish 2 or 3 days from now, go salt it NOW.) I very quickly learned to make sure I always had preserved lemon on hand. And of course, I now have more preserved lemon than any normal human could ever actually use. “Hope you like Moroccan, honey!” (Speaking of which, honey has its own venerated place at this table; perhaps that one will find its way into its own article, sometime soon.)

Grinding spices by hand in a mortar and pestle
Grinding spices by hand in a mortar and pestle
Image by Author
Nearly-finished harissa
Nearly-finished harissa
A very red mortar and pestle — Image by Author
  • Caraway: 1 T
  • Cumin seed: 2 t
  • Hot pimentón: 1 1/2 t
  • Garlic: 6 cloves
  • Preserved lemon (pulp): 2 1/2 T
  • White wine vinegar (or whatever vinegar): 1 T
  • Kosher salt: 1 t (halve if using finer salt)
  • Extra virgin olive oil: 1/2 c + more for topping
  1. Bring a kettle of water to a boil; meanwhile pull stems off chiles and shake loose as many seeds as you can (do not obsess, here), and place chiles in a heatproof bowl. When the water has boiled, pour it over the chiles and allow to stand for at least 30 minutes.
  2. Bring a small, dry skillet to moderate heat, and add the three seed-spices. Monitor them closely, moving them about as needed, so they do not scorch. When they are toasted and very aromatic, remove them from the heat immediately, and add them to the mortar.
  3. Crush the seeds using the pestle, until they are fairly fine; some texture in harissa is an asset, so these do not need to be (nor do you want them to be) a fine powder.
  4. Drain the chiles well, remove any remaining stems and seeds, and pat them somewhat dry. Give them a rough chop. Add them to the mortar, along with the remaining ingredients except the oil.
  5. Pound. (Pound. Pound.) And grind.
  6. When things are approximately a “paste” and not “largeish chunks of dried chiles with some other stuff among them,” add a tiny bit of oil and keep pestling. Repeat, and once you sense that an emulsion is forming, you can start adding the oil in larger amounts.
  7. When the 1/2 cup oil is used up and the paste is smooth to your liking, store it in a lidded jar. Flatten out the top of it with the back of a spoon, and pour a thin layer of olive oil on top to help preserve it. Do this each time you use it, to keep it well.
  • The mixture of chiles I used is assertively spicy but not fiery. I think next time I may replace a guajillo or two with more chiles de arbol, so it’s slightly spicier. (Maybe I’ll use the serranos that dried on my kitchen windowsill.)
  • If you’re using regular lemon segments instead of preserved lemon pulp, you will want to use twice the amount of salt listed, as preserved lemon itself adds a good deal of salt.
  • If you’re just lousy with preserved lemon, you could always chop and add some peel, too.
  • Don’t touch your eyes for several days afterward. Wash your hands well, and often.

Pastry Chef, Author, Consultant, Founder of Melt Bakery, Level 6 Food Nerd

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store