Wednesday, October 21, 2015
Hot! Hot! Harissa! (aka The Perfect Condiment)
I've been wanting to take another stab at making this anywhere-from-one-to-five-alarm sauce after making Jim Dixon's version using red bell peppers. Balanced, with a sweetness and depth of flavor from a combination of caraway and cumin, harissa also can have a searing heat depending on the type of peppers you use. I love using it to spike the sauce for my macaroni and cheese, to spice up a mild curry or to dot on top of deviled eggs.
Spanish espelette peppers.
Plus it's great on its own, served alongside eggs or stirred into dishes that could use a little kick, and is great for any family members who absolutely must have their favorite bottle of hot sauce at every meal (you know who you are…). Without the vinegary twang of hot sauces like tabasco or sriracha, it blends flavors, pulling their notes together like the background-singing heroes of the movie Twenty Feet From Stardom.
The perfect opportunity to try, try again came when I stopped in at Conserva, Manuel Recio and Leslie Lukas-Recio's outpost of the tastes of Spain. I was ogling some of the last of the fresh ezpeleta peppers from their Viridian Farms—the ones they dry and grind for their piment basquaise—when Leslie mentioned that they're terrific in harissa, more accurately representing the flavor of the Spanish peppers that were brought to North Africa, where harissa originated.
More or less copying what I did before, I took a hint from a recipe by hot-in-his-own-right Yotam Ottolenghi and added just a touch of lemon (he used preserved lemon but, not having any in the pantry, I substituted lemon zest). Per Leslie's suggestion I lightly charred the peppers, which made peeling their very thick skins much easier, though if you use even mildly spicy peppers I'd highly recommend using rubber gloves when you're peeling and seeding them. It didn't occur to me until I'd nearly finished, and my hands were feeling hot for a couple of days afterwards even with repeated washings.
And I can't encourage you enough to talk with the farmer at the market or your retailer when you see a new ingredient that catches your attention. These peppers made a good hot sauce into a stellar one, and I'll be looking for more of them—and maybe even seeds for my garden—in the future.
8-10 ezpeleta peppers (or Spanish espelette peppers or red bell peppers)
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 tsp. caraway seeds
1/2 tsp. cumin seeds
Zest of 1 lemon
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. rice vinegar
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
Turn on the broiler in your oven. Lay the peppers on a sheet pan and put it under the broiler, a few inches below the flame. Watch carefully, turning the peppers with a pair of tongs when they start to blister. When skin is thoroughly blistered but not charred, remove the peppers to a small paper bag. Close it and leave the peppers to steam for at least ten minutes. Wearing rubber gloves, especially if the peppers are spicy, peel or rub them to remove most of the skin and remove the seeds and stems. (You can also use a paring knife to pull off stubborn sections of skin.)
Place peppers and remaining ingredients except for oil in the bowl of your blender or food processor. Turn on and drizzle in the oil, processing until it forms a smooth paste. Taste (careful, it's hot!) and adjust salt. Store in a covered jar in the refrigerator. It should last at least two weeks.
Photo of espelette peppers from Wikimedia.