The Heat of the Summer: It’s high time for hot peppers and harissaMaybe you picked your peck of chile peppers early this summer and strung them prettily to dry in the kitchen window. Or maybe you’ll oven-dry the anchos and habaneros, the ones that you’ll frantically gather under a cold moon just hours before the first frost arrives. Perhaps you simply couldn’t resist the sudden bounty of freshly dried (not an oxymoron but an aspiration) chiles arriving at the markets around town, and so cheap. Well, now what?
For centuries the blend of hot chiles and spices known as harissa has been fundamental to Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian and other Northern African cuisines. In recent years, Internet spice trading has brought the seasoning to Western menus. Though ready-made mixtures, available as a paste or a dry spice mix, are showing up in ethnic markets and specialty spice shops, the versatile chile blend comes together so quickly that there’s no reason not to make it yourself.
But first, due warning. If you’ve never experienced harissa, picture the place it comes from: blistering hot sands on North African shores, lazily charring beneath the midday sun. Harissa is piquant, admirably complex and outrageously, almost gratuitously hot, and nothing I say here will prepare you for the shock of an undiluted spoonful. In one audible rolling wave, harissa will assault your tongue and singe your nasal hairs. I’ve heard it can cure poison sumac. I know for a fact that it will strip paint.
I do not have a death wish. When used as an accent, harissa’s punch becomes more like an affable shoulder slap. As ingredient, condiment or sauce, harissa’s signature is a slow, friendly scorch, mitigated by the other flavors and textures in your dish.
As for the poison sumac, I can’t say, but harissa will certainly cure your sinus woes. In fact, the capsaicin found in hot chile peppers has been studied for its ability to improve blood flow, fight infection, reduce inflammation, boost metabolism and protect cardiovascular health. In other words, harissa’s good for you. Just so long as you don’t forget the gloves.
Premade versions of the potent paste clock in at all levels of the Scoville scale, but when you make it at home you can accommodate your heat tolerance. Harissa’s variations in chiles and other ingredients are endless. Traditionally made with dried chiles, garlic, oil, coriander, caraway and cumin, other versions incorporate citrus, cinnamon, mint, fresh chiles, bell peppers, cilantro, tomatoes, bread crumbs and even rose petals.
Harissa’s uses are endless too. Here’s a handful to get you started:
• Stuff olives with harissa cream cheese
• Stir a spoonful into chili, soup or stew
• Mix harissa into ketchup and use to dip fries, spread on burgers or add to baked beans
• Spread it on bread and add smoked meat
• Skip the bread and use it as a rub for meat and fish
• Mix with yogurt and serve with fragrant grains and rice
• Use it to accent roasted veggies
• Spread it on a crusty loaf and top with avocado
• Use in tomato- or oil-based pasta sauces
• Stir into tuna and chickpeas
• Add a dollop to scrambled or fried eggs
• Stir into sour cream for baked potatoes
• Make a maple-harissa glaze for baked winter squash
• Make a honey-harissa glaze for fresh plums, figs or baked apples
Becky Pastor is a St. Louis-based writer and editor. Her ongoing project, beckyandthebeanstock.com, explores diversity in the food supply – and the kitchen.