Since leaving the practice of law and plunging full time into the world of food, one of the things I find endlessly fascinating is how certain foods and food customs have worldwide appeal. One that immediately comes to mind is pasta, or noodles, which are enjoyed in too many countries to count. Another is the custom of serving meze, or appetizers — small dishes of food eaten at the start of a meal to stimulate one’s appetite.
Certainly, each of these topics is worthy of its own post with accompanying recipe (and as I write these words, ideas for future posts are already popping into my head). Today, however, I want to talk about the universal love of all things hot. Spicy hot, that is.
It’s undisputed that people love to add heat to food. Growing up in Oklahoma, one of the constants in our house was Tabasco sauce. I have to admit that I don’t actually remember using it on anything since, like most kids, I wasn’t particularly fond of foods that were overly spicy. Nevertheless, something must have sunk in because today I absolutely love anything with heat. Currently, my heat-promoting repertoire includes Tabasco, Sriracha, and Tapatío hot sauces, at least one Thai-style sweet chile sauce, chile-infused oils, jars of both Aleppo and Korean pepper flakes, and several kinds of dried chile peppers.
Recently, I ran across yet another option for inducing chile pepper nirvana. During a visit to a local grocery store, I discovered tubs of harissa, a paste made of chiles and spices that is believed to have originated in Tunisia but is now a staple of cuisines across all of North Africa and in some Middle Eastern countries as well. In this case, the harissa was the version used to top the rice and salad bowls sold at Cava Mezza Grill, a Washington D.C.-based chain of fast casual restaurants serving Greek-inspired foods in a salad bar-type assembly line similar to that used by Chipotle. Since I always opt for a dollop of harissa on my visits to Cava, trying it out at home was a no brainer.
I wasn’t disappointed. I used about a tablespoon on top of some hummus that I had made a few days earlier, and the combination was delicious. The spiciness of the harissa added just the right kick to the earthiness of the chickpeas. Indeed, I was enjoying myself so much that I thought it would be a shame not to share the experience. But since my venue for sharing is a blog rather than a visit to my kitchen, the only way to share is either to send you in search of your own tub at a nearby grocery store (likely not possible since I believe Cava’s harissa is sold only in the Washington, D.C. area) or to provide you with a recipe so you can make your own at home (the better option because, well, making your own is a lot more fun).
So, sharing a recipe was the winning option. But first, I had to come up with one. After looking at the list of ingredients available on Cava’s website and then researching harissa online, I realized that Cava’s version is unique in that it is primarily stewed tomatoes with some added crushed red pepper to provide the heat. In contrast, more traditional versions of harissa use a base of either red chiles (more common) or roasted red peppers (less common). At first I was puzzled by this deviation, but then I noticed that Cava’s website refers to its harissa as a “Greek spin” on traditional harissa. Since tomatoes are used widely in Greek cuisine, it suddenly made sense that Cava’s version would include that ingredient.
So, with this information, I set to work developing a recipe. Like Cava, I decided to use a base of tomatoes, except that rather than using stewed tomatoes, I chose fire-roasted tomatoes in order to give the harissa a subtle smoky flavor. For heat, I used a combination of dried chiles: one ancho chile to continue the smoky theme and a combination of one New Mexico chile and one chile de árbol to provide a medium level of heat. Finally, I threw in some garlic, salt, and pepper to add some additional flavor and olive oil to make a more spreadable consistency. I then simmered the mixture over low heat for 40 minutes to thicken it and allow the flavors to combine and intensify.
Regarding the question of which form of chile to use, I prefer dried chiles because I’m able to mix and match the varieties to get the flavor and heat level I prefer, plus dried chiles tend to yield a chile powder that is purer and fresher than store-bought chile powders. However, you do have to stem and seed the dried chiles and then grind them into a powder (I use an old coffee bean grinder dedicated to this purpose). If you prefer not to do this, you can use crushed red pepper flakes like Cava does.
The result is a harissa that tastes pretty much like the original if you ask me. So far I’ve used it on hummus and some corn we grilled a few weekends ago. It can also be used as a marinade for meat and as a condiment for soup. If you’re feeling really daring, you can create a Cava-style rice or salad bowl and top it off with a big dollop of the stuff. I guarantee your family will think you brought home Cava takeout.
1 28-ounce can fire roasted tomatoes, pureed in a blender
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 each of the following dried chiles: ancho, New Mexico, and chile de árbol*
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1. Prep the chile peppers: For each chile pepper, remove the stem, seeds, and membranes and then tear it into small pieces. Place all of the pieces in a spice or coffee bean grinder (which you don’t use to grind coffee beans) and process until you have a powder and there are no stray pieces of whole chile pepper.**
2. In a large skillet (preferably nonstick), gently heat the extra virgin olive oil until it begins to shimmer. Add the minced garlic and the chile powder from step 1 and sauté, stirring frequently, for 1-2 minutes. Be careful not to let the garlic burn.
3. Add the pureed tomatoes with their juices and the salt and pepper to the skillet and stir gently until the ingredients are well combined. Bring the mixture to a gentle simmer and then cook, stirring occasionally, for 30 – 40 minutes or until most of the liquid has evaporated and the mixture takes on a thick, paste-like texture. (If the mixture becomes too dry, stir in some water, a tablespoon at a time, until the mixture returns to the consistency you prefer.) Let cool, and then transfer to a storage jar. The harissa should keep up to a month in the refrigerator and up to six months in the freezer. To make it easier to keep and use large quantities of harissa, you can divide the recipe up into smaller containers and freeze each one separately.
*This combination of chiles results in a mildly spicy harissa. Feel free to experiment with other types of chiles to find a flavor and heat level that suits your preferences. The websites for both The Cook’s Thesaurus and Pati’s Mexican Table describe some of the dried chiles more commonly available in the United States.
**Many chile aficionados will insist that you must first toast the whole chiles before using them. I tend to omit this step since (1) I am usually trying to minimize food prep time, and (2) I find that cooking the chile powder with the roasted tomatoes and olive oil helps to bring out the flavor of the chiles almost as well as toasting them. That said, if you prefer using toasted chile peppers, you can either toast them in a dry frying pan over medium heat for for 2½ minutes on one side and then another 2½ minutes on the other side, or you can toast them on a baking sheet in a 325° oven for about 8 minutes.
Copyright© A Busy Mom’s Kitchen