I knew it existed, and still I ignored it until a while ago. I urge you not to do the same mistake. It is one of those ingredients that will spice up, quite literally, whatever food you are preparing.
Harissa is a red spicy paste from North africa. It contains chilli, grilled bell peppers, onion, garlic, coriander, cumin and other magical ingredients. The first harissa I consciously tried (I’m sure I had it in Lebanese restaurants, but this does not count, as its flavour was probably blended with whatever else I was eating), I made it myself using Ottolenghi’s recipe. It was veeeery good even if my starting ingredients were a bit bland (UK supermarket stuff level, if you want to know what I am talking about), but then, all Ottolenghi recipes are. However I decided it was not worth bothering doing it, unless on special occasions. Then I saw it ready-made in my local Middle East store, and I decided to give it a try. Can you picture that endless, diverse variety of sauces and condiments you have in your fridge and cupboard, those you use when you cook Mexican or Japanese or Thai style (or Italian, of course :)), and then ignore them for the rest of the week/month/year, until the due date is well due, or you move, or maybe you cook again xxx-style? I was ready and willing to add yet another ingredient to my almost endless list. I don’t mind them at all; actually I quite like spending half an hour looking for the tamarind paste in the bottom of the fridge whenever I need it – rarely, that is - and instead discovering in a corner that new miso paste (new a few months ago) I have not tried yet. And harissa was small, cheap and not very smelly, so it demanded little commitment on many sides.
The next time I looked, it was gone. I mean, it was finished. It was over. We ate it all! The truth is, this red thing is seriously good. It goes well with almost anything. I can’t stand any ready-made sauce, and the likes of mayo and ketchup just stay there forever in my house, but harissa we did use. I found out that not only it is good as a sauce, but it gives depth of flavour to almost anything, without being overwhelming. I tried it in soups, sauces, stews, you name it.
One (health) warning. The flavour is not overpowering, but it is hot. So if you are not chilli addicted as I am, don’t add too much, or you’ll regret your act with warm tears.
Here is an example of how I use harissa. It is a simple and quick supper, very flavourful and satisfying, and, as most of my suppers, it can be prepared in stages and requires a quick final assembling. I used some nice whole grain spelt I bought here. Spelt is indeed a bit different from Italian farro; I like them both and find them roughly equivalent, farro being maybe a little plumper. if you have an oven, lucky you! I’d advise you to cut the aubergines into wedges and roast them there, with a little salt and oil. However, also the grilled version is ok. I enriched the sauce with my favourite flavouring combination, the one I always use when I want to add a mediterranean touch: shallots and sun-dried tomatoes. I added some smoked mozzarella that came from Italy through my sister; but either the poor thing suffered from the trip, or it was not very good originally, at any rate, it was not an outstanding smoked cheese. Any smoked provola will do better, if you can find some. Else, substitute with normal mozzarella or provola. You want a cheese that will make strings melting, and not too greasy; a smoky touch will pair nicely with the subtle smokiness of harissa.
Harissa and aubergines spelt salad
Ingredients (serves 2):
200 gr whole grain spelt
1 medium aubergine
150 gr mangetout
2 small shallots
4-5 sun-dried tomatoes
1 tablespoon harissa
extra virgin olive oil
150 diced smoked mozzarella
Soak the spelt overnight, then cook it in salted boiling water for about 30 minutes, until quite al dente. you can skip the soaking bit and cook it directly for longer, but I find that it retains its consistency better when soaked.
Cut the aubergine in round slices, about 1 cm thick. Heat a non stick pan or an iron grid, sprinkle it with salt, and grill the aubergine slices on each side for about 3 minutes, depending on how hot your pan is. They should be soft and a little golden on the outside.
Blanche quickly the mangetout in boiling water for a minute, then drain them and cool them under running water.
Peel the shallot and cut it into thin slices. Cut the sun-dried tomatoes into thin strips.
Heat a tablespoon olive oil in a non stick pan, add the shallots and dried tomatoes and cook, stirring, on a gentle heat for about five minutes, until the shallots begin to soften and brown. Add a tablespoon or water and the harissa, and cook mixing for a further five minutes. Add a little more water if needed, to loosen the sauce, then mix in the spelt and the aubergine slices.
Warm thoroughly and let the flavours melt, adjusting salt and harissa to taste. Remove from the heat and add in the mangetout and the cheese. Mix it and wait for the cheese to melt a little, then serve immediately.