My Harissa Addiction

Is there a clinic for this?

Harissa in a Mortar and Pestle
Image by Author

Hi, my name’s Julian. “Hi, Julian.” I’m a harissa addict.

In the event that you’re not familiar with harissa, I’m going to use a word I use very rarely, the “S” word: You should find some and explore it. This Moroccan condiment is a mixture of chiles, garlic, lemon (preserved lemon, if you can), seasonings (chiefly: cumin, coriander, caraway, and maybe paprika), and olive oil. Even if you’re not a fan of spice, you could get a broad view of everything harissa has to offer, while adding barely more heat than you would with black pepper. Its flavor has a tremendous depth that goes far beyond simply “spicy.”

I’m no stranger to this perfect paste, but lately, we’ve become much more intimate. I’ve smeared it on flank steak and broiled it (and done the same with bavette). I’ve mixed it with mayonnaise and used it as a sandwich spread. It’s found its way into vinaigrettes. It’s made appearances in vegetable sautés. I’ve tucked some into a tiny jar and taken it to my parents’ house in the guise of a “gift” so I wouldn’t have to explain why I couldn’t take 4 days off from eating it. I’ve literally developed a quick cracker recipe just so I could make crackers quickly, and have something on which to smear harissa.

Why am I so obsessed, all of a sudden?

First, even though this was something quite familiar to me, I didn’t always keep it on hand. And my neighborhood isn’t exactly Little Morocco; it’s not lying around on every store shelf. Since the beginning of summer I’ve been developing a keener interest in and awareness of Moroccan cuisine. Sometimes, especially when you’re learning, you just want to make something. I don’t even remember what that something was at this point — I just remember that it needed harissa and I didn’t have any — so I did the only sensible thing and decided that if it could be made, I could make it. So, in a sense, I’m a little deep into it because it’s my own baby.

Second, the sum of its ingredients is intoxicating, untouchable; they have combined into something that offers no window into any particular component, and the flavor is wholly “other.” It’s a great arena for learning how to balance flavor, when you want no single ingredient to stand out.

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.)

Armed with the rarest of the ingredients, I felt confident I was ready to take a stab — the rest of the components are pretty easy to come by. I keep an absurd variety and quantity of dried chiles in my cupboard, as well as spicy pimentón (this Spanish smoked paprika, available in non-spicy form as well, is a marvelous thing to have in your pantry) and the other spices. I wanted to really learn all about harissa, so I wasn’t content to dump everything into a blender and just cross my fingers and see how it went. I hauled down my favorite tool of late, a big marble mortar with a wooden pestle. (I may have mentioned it. Just be glad I haven’t named it, yet. (That I’ll admit. (Yet.))) And as long as I’m waxing poetic about my M&P, let me give you a little color — or rather LACK of color. After pounding this extremely, extremely red substance into a smooth paste, the outside of my mortar was entirely covered in a slick and deeply red goo. This coating of intense red did not disappear even after very thorough scrubbing, but somehow, two days later, I woke up and it was completely gone. Where did it go!? Have my house-elves finally arrived!? Did the marble absorb it!? I didn’t know I could love this tool any more than I already did.

Grinding spices by hand in a mortar and pestle
Image by Author

In a slightly less mystical turn of events, as I pounded and ground these ingredients together, they each revealed the meaning of their own contribution. You really get to know a food when you bring it into being in this way: I feel the same about pesto. The aroma that rises to meet you spells it all out, even as you think you’re the one telling the story. (Alright, alright, I’ll contain any further odes to the mortar and pestle to future posts.)

I don’t necessarily recommend doing this by hand, unless your grasp on reality is quite as loose as mine. It took me a good two hours of mortar-and-pestling to get a product that was more than just chunks of dried chiles mixed up with some spices and oil. The last step, as it so often seems to be, is to add olive oil. As I did this, oh-so-gradually, there came a point when everything coalesced. It became more than just a bunch of chiles and spices, it became harissa. Pure magic.

Stored with a layer of olive oil on top, this stuff will keep pretty well. Hopefully it lasts just as long as it takes my elbow tendons to stop being so testy about it.

Nearly-finished harissa
A very red mortar and pestle — Image by Author

Recipe: Harissa, The Old-Fashioned Way

Makes nearly a pint of harissa, which will be almost enough to get you through until your body is healed enough to make more.

Ingredients:

  • Dried chiles: 4 oz; for me this was comprised of (see NOTES):

22 chiles de arbol

4 guajillos

3 Nuevo Méxicos

3 costeños

2 moritas

2 anchos

  • Coriander seed: 1 T
  • 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

Instructions:

  1. Wear an old shirt that you don’t much care about, or one that is dark red or darker.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Pound. (Pound. Pound.) And grind.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

NOTES

  • I did not want to use too many smoked chiles, like the large and more familiar chipotle, so I used only a couple moritas, which are a type of small chipotle and a favorite of mine. Between this and the pimentón, there was not an overt smokiness, but a nice earthy note.
  • 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.

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