Food can change your mood, fact. For me, when I am ill, or more correctly, ill-tempered, I actively seek out getting slapped into sense, culinary style. You cannot control your reaction to chilli. So, any desire to mump, is banished the instant the heat disperses all over your mouth, making your eyes pop and zinging you into humour. While I can understand that a burning mouth can potentially be the fountain for anything but happy utterances, I tell you, it works for me. I am pepped, sorted, out of a daze. And the best cure in such circumstances hails from Tunisia…Harissa.
I first tried it in Aberdeen, where they came in bottles of such minuscule proportions that I used the entire contents in one meal. The heat wasn’t enough. Abolish any thought of the beetroot clad cheaters either. Other than colour, they serve no purpose. Frustrated, I decided to give making Harissa a go and I haven’t looked back since. I have tried a fair few recipes; Ottelenghi’s, Nadia Sawalha’s and others online, but I always return, perhaps somewhat masochistically, to Nigella’s recipe in How to Eat. Here the heat was unapologetic, the spices unrestrained. Other recipes included peppers which was good, and others bizarrely had tomatoes and sugar which made it a chutney, trying awkwardly to pace out the very hot, fiery nature of the paste. What’s the point in that?
Much depends on the strength of your dried chillies. Here I have used the dried Kashmiri chillies which are considered to be milder in heat but bursting with colour. It still has bite, but won’t ignite the sweat glands. I am also leaning towards experimenting with the dried, smokey Mexican chillis. Being a coriander fiend, fresh or seeds, the three tablespoons worth in here, is the clincher for me, as well as the scent of caraway seeds. You can adjust the spice quantities to suit your taste. A lot of recipes that I have seen, rely only on cumin.
The first thing I make after I have a full batch of freshly made Harissa is my Spicy Couscous. It is fitting, considering that this paste hails from Tunisia, where Couscous is a staple. Chuck in anything you want in here, but I generally go with canned chickpeas, spring onions, toasted pine seeds and a ridiculous amount of fresh coriander. Add the paste as per your limits. I quite like adding plumped up raisins, if I am in the mood for it. The paste is forked through all the ingredients and I increase the quantity according to taste. Know that feta too, all salty and sharp marries perfectly with the spices of harissa. Basically, it’s a thoroughly satisfying store cupboard meal for a chilli nutter.
If you are wondering what other uses you can put Harissa to, let me count the ways…
- Marinade lamb chunks with the paste and barbecue/grill/saute to sit on top on a bed of coucous (minus the harissa), perhaps with an extra dollop on top to serve.
- A different take on Roast Chicken; Cut your chook into large sections, marinade in a thinned version of the paste with Oil and lemon juice and roast till done.
- Fish, is fantastic with this. White, firm, thick fillets, coated and fried in butter, are sensational. Nigella’s Indian roast potatoes, make a wonderful carb companion with.
- Next time you make a fish stew, a dollop in or on, in the nature of a rouille, just brings it to a whole, new level.
- Oily fish such as mackeral and sardines are the perfect partner for Harissa, the two strong flavours complementing each other. Brush the paste (thinned with some oil and lemon juice) on while grilling or sautéing. Mix some of the paste with yoghurt to serve on the side.
- Mixed with mayonnaise or creme fraiche, it makes a delicious dipping sauce for roasted potatoes, sweet or otherwise, as well as prawns.
- It pairs beautifully with the mighty aubergine. Slice thickly into rounds, brush with oil and grill. Once tender and golden, brush with the paste and serve with a cooling buttermilk or creme fraiche/touch of garlic/olive oil/ salt and pepper dressing on the side.
So, there you have it. My love knows no limits, but my patience at typing is always a touch short. If you have any cherished ways of using Harissa, I would love to know.
For Harissa recipe, click here.