The challenge facing us in late summer/early fall is preserving the harvest. A prime example is hot peppers. In tropical climates they thrive as perennials and can grow for many years. It would be great if I could just walk down to the garden in January to pick a few fresh jalapenos. But given the fact that January temperatures where we live are below freezing and pepper plants prefer a daytime temperature of 65-80°F, it won’t be happening anytime soon . So it is necessary to find methods of preservation now to enjoy them later while the peppers are at their peak. Every year I freeze whole peppers, dry them, make chili flakes, pickle jalapenos, I’m even making sriracha now, but a new method is always welcome.
A very simple recipe I found for eggplant, another garden stalwart, suggested topping grilled slices with prepared harissa and yogurt. In the past I purchased harissa in a jar or a tube at the middle eastern stand at the local farmers market. This time I decided to see if this was something I could make myself. Harissa, is a garlicky spicy condiment found in the Northwest African countries of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. It can be used as a condiment for meat or fish, roasted vegetables, stirred into soups and stews and served alongside couscous. Think sriracha with more complexity. It’s ingredients can include roasted peppers, garlic, chile peppers of all varieties, fragrant spices such as coriander, cumin and caraway, dried mint, lemon and olive oil. There is no one master recipe for harissa. The ingredients in harissa vary by country, ethnicity, even neighborhood. You can adjust the heat by the number and type of chilies you use, just remember, harissa is supposed to be hot.
My recipe is a little different from most since I used fresh hot peppers, not dried ones that need to be reconstituted. This meant using double the amount of peppers. I used one red bell pepper, four mild poblano peppers and a mix of jalapeno, cayenne and ancho. I added a little tomato paste for sweetness, preserved lemon peel with just a little juice, chopped garlic, smoked paprika and an aromatic spice blend. I think the spice blend is what really gives this dish its unique flavor. Whole spices, coriander, cumin and caraway are toasted in a small skillet until the fragrance fills your kitchen. I find it easiest to grind them in a mortar and pestle, a mini food processor doesn’t quite give the consistency you are looking for.
All the peppers need to be charred to remove the skin. I did this in a hot oven, turning occasionally to blacken all the sides. I put the charred peppers in a bowl and covered it tightly with plastic wrap to steam the peppers. It is important for to wear rubber gloves when removing the skin, seeds and stem from the hot peppers. Conventional wisdom for years has said that the hottest part of the pepper is the seeds. A recent study however has shown that even though the seeds pack some heat, it’s actually the placenta, the white tissue that holds the seeds that is the source of the most heat. As you peel the peppers put them into piles, no heat, some heat and hottest. That way you can hold back on some of the hottest peppers until you are certain the sauce will be palatable for you.
Combine the chilies, toasted spices, garlic, salt and other optional ingredients in a food processor. With the food processor running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil until you have a smooth, thick paste. Scrape down the sides occasionally. Taste, now is the time to add that extra pepper if desired. As I said before, harissa is supposed to be hot. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer harissa to clean jars, top with a thin layer of olive oil and store in the refrigerator for several weeks. Since I freeze pesto I may try to see if harissa can be frozen too.
As a postscript, the harissa received immediate approval from Joe who topped cucumber slices with harissa as an after work snack.
Makes 2 cups
- 1 medium bell pepper
- 8 to 10 ounces fresh chili peppers of varying heat, poblano, ancho, jalapeno, cayenne
- 2 t cumin seed
- 2 t coriander seed
- 2 t caraway seed
- 3 to 4 cloves of peeled garlic
- 1 T tomato paste
- 1 t preserved lemon peel
- 1 t juice from preserved lemon
- 1 t smoked paprika
- Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
- 3-4 T extra virgin olive oil
- Preheat oven to 425°F.Line a baking sheet with foil. Place all the peppers on the baking sheet and roast for 10 minutes.
- Turn the smaller peppers over and roast for another 10 minutes, until the skins are blackened. Remove them to a bowl. Turn the bell and poblano peppers over and roast for another 10-15 minutes, until the skins are blackened.
- Remove all the peppers to the bowl and tightly cover with plastic wrap to steam the skin.
- Place the cumin, coriander and caraway seed into a dry skillet over medium heat. Toast until seeds have darkened a bit and have become fragrant.
- Pour toasted seeds into the bowl of a mortar and pestle. Crush seeds to a powder.
- Using rubber gloves to protect your hands, stem, skin and seed the peppers.
- Place the peppers (hold back a few hot ones if you are concerned), toasted seeds, garlic, tomato paste, preserved lemon peel and juice, smoked paprika into the bowl of a food processor. Pulse to combine the ingredients, scraping down the sides.
- With the food processor running, add the olive oil in a steady stream until you have a smooth, thick paste. Taste, add salt and pepper to your liking and pulse in the extra peppers if desired.
- Transfer harissa to clean jars and top with a thin layer of olive oil. Store in the refrigerator for several months.