Harissa_sauce

Harissa is a red-hot, chile-based condiment from North Africa that can elevate many dishes.  (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

If you like your food with a little — or a lot of — fiery spice to it, you’ve got to try harissa.

It’s a red-hot, chile-based condiment from North Africa that can elevate many dishes. While the ingredients may vary from region to region, basic recipes for this thick paste typically include dried chiles, a few spices, garlic, olive oil and salt. Preserved lemons, anchovies, capers, or tomatoes are sometimes added.

It can be used both as an ingredient and a condiment. Use it to flavor a marinade, in soups and stews, or as a condiment for grilled meat, fish or vegetables. It’s excellent spread onto a sandwich for a little extra heat.

During a trip to Israel a few years ago I was first exposed to harissa, where it was drizzled over a dish of roasted leg of lamb and couscous. Ever since then I was hooked.

It goes great with roasted potatoes or in scrambled eggs (just like Tabasco or Sriracha). My favorite use is so easy: harissa mayonnaise. Blend equal parts of mayo and harissa, then taste and adjust as you like. I also mix it with yogurt to use as a marinade for chicken or fish. I add plain harissa to pizza and pastas to boost the flavor; even mix it with ketchup for French fries.

Be warned: Harissa can be addictive. The flavor and heat level of harissa vary depending on how many chiles are used. Remember, though, it’s meant to be hot. Harissa can be found in jars at specialty grocery stores like Whole Foods, but I prefer to make a batch at home. That way I can adjust the flavor to the way I like it.

Although harissa can be stored in the refrigerator for many months, it also freezes well. You can make a large batch and freeze it in smaller portions to use as needed.

In “Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking,” by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook,” Solomonov writes, “The dark meat of chicken thighs is ideal for the grill — it’s far easier to keep succulent than white meat.

Chicken takes a marinade incredibly well.” Besides harissa, he uses onion and mango pickle marinade for his kebabs. He calls harissa by its Hebrew name, harif, which means spicy.

The dark fruit flavor and elegant acidity of Achaval-Ferrer’s Quimera 2012 malbec blend ($35) pairs deliciously with this spicy dish, its earthy flavors echoing the harissa.

Pargiyot (Chicken Thigh Kebabs)

  • 1-1/2 cups roughly chopped onion
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 1/4 cup harissa (see recipe below or store-bought)
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch chunks

Combine first four ingredients in a blender and puree until the mixture is smooth and about as thick as a milkshake. You may need to add a couple of tablespoons of water to thin the mixture.

Toss chicken with the marinade and seal in a zip-top bag. Marinate in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or up to 2 days. When ready to grill, wipe off the excess marinade, thread the chicken pieces on skewers, and grill directly over hot coals (or in a grill pan), turning every few minutes, until the chicken has lightly charred on the exterior and is cooked through, about 8 minutes total.

Makes 4 servings.

Harissa

  • 1/2 cup ground Aleppo peppers (available online) (see note)
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • Pinch each of ground coriander and ground caraway
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup canola oil

Note: If ground Aleppo peppers are not available use a mix of Guajillo and New Mexico chiles, stemmed, seeded and softened in a bowl of boiling water for 30 minutes. Add heat with Arbol chiles; add smokiness with Chipotle chiles. For a very mild harissa, use roasted red bell peppers.

Blend all ingredients in a food processor to a coarse puree. Add canola oil and process for another few seconds. Stop short of making it perfectly smooth.

Makes 3/4 cup.

Recipe adapted from: “Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking,” by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35)

Today’s Special is a Tribune News Service column by Carole Kotkin, manager of the Ocean Reef Club cooking school and co-host of Food & Wine Talk on southfloridagourmet.com.

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