Updated: Nov 24, 2020
Welcome to the Let's Get Spicy series! Through this series, I will introduce you to each of my small batch, hand-crafted spice blends, giving you a little bit of the history behind each blend, a story or two of how I first discovered them or what inspired them, some non-recipe-recipes for when you don't have the time or interest to get too involved in cooking, and some full-blown recipes for when you really want to dig in. First up, Five-Chile Harissa Spice Blend!
Originally from North Africa, harissa is usually found in paste form and, at its most basic, is a simple combination of ground chiles, salt, and olive oil. It is ubiquitous in North Africa, served on or alongside basically everything, not unlike, some would say, ketchup in the United States. But make no mistake, harissa is decidedly NOT ketchup (no offense to the ketchup lovers out there).
I first learned about harissa in culinary school, when we were handed a list of ingredients in my International Cuisines class and instructed to whip up a batch of this condiment I'd never previously heard of. (It was an odd class, to be sure, where we were often asked to produce dishes without knowing what the final product was supposed to look or taste like, sometimes without even measurements for the ingredients.) I did as instructed, producing a fiery red puree tinged with a slight lemon tang and a surprising depth of flavor. It soon became a go-to flavor for me, as I loved the way the spicy chiles interacted with the tang of the lemon and olive oil, and I was not surprised when I started seeing jars of it in places like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. I tried many of the versions I found in stores but always kind of felt like they could be better, more... interesting.
Growing up in Southern California, dried chiles are available everywhere, and there are LOTS of different kinds from which to choose, depending on the flavor and spice level you're looking for. So, in my quest for the perfect harissa, I started experimenting with different types of chiles in my recipe. I soon found that using just one type of chile (as most of the store-bought brands do) just didn't give the depth of flavor I really wanted, so I started combining multiple types of chiles, layering them into my blend in different quantities to obtain what I thought was the best combination of spice, flavor, and smokiness.
But I still wasn't satisfied. Having started exploring North African cuisine (because once you've tried one dish you kind of want to taste more of what a region eats), I knew that plenty of other spices are also common. The region is, after all, smack dab along the ancient spice route. So, I began experimenting with adding other elements to my harissa, including cumin, coriander, caraway, garlic, and mint, and the complexity I was seeking finally started to reveal itself.
Yet I STILL wasn't satisfied (story of my life - ask my husband). Although I love harissa in its paste form, I found that its flavor would start to fade or change if I didn't finish the jar fast enough or, worse yet, would go bad. So I set out to develop a dried spice blend that I could turn into a paste on demand by simply adding olive oil. Several iterations later, I settled on my current recipe (which is now available for sale in my online store as well as at my local farmers' market). And I'll tell you what - I will never go back to making (or buying) harissa in paste form. Having it in a dried spice blend form opens up SO MANY opportunities!
What opportunities, you ask?? Well, here are just a few non-recipe ideas to get you started...
Sprinkle it on a hard-boiled egg or avocado toast for a quick breakfast or mid-morning snack.
Jazz up some sliced sliced fruit (mango, pineapple, watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew are my faves).
Mix it into your hummus (store-bought or homemade). Your veggies will thank you.
Make a marinade by adding some olive oil and maybe some sliced onion and smashed garlic and then marinate some chicken, shrimp, or steak for an hour or so before throwing it on the grill.
Mix it with some mayonnaise and a squeeze of lemon to elevate your sandwich game.
Toss it with some olive oil and some cruciferous vegetables like broccoli or brussels sprouts before roasting them to golden brown
Season a salmon fillet with it and either sear it in a hot cast iron skillet or broil it
Use a pinch of it whenever a recipe calls for "chile flake." That dish just became your new favorite.
Toss it with some chickpeas and a little olive oil and then roast until crispy (or use your air fryer if you've got one). Snack time!
Add a teaspoon or so to your favorite hearty soup or stew recipe.
Make like my mother-in-law and use it as fajita seasoning for some weeknight chicken fajitas.
Use it to season some roasted potatoes to serve alongside chicken or steak. Oh, and the leftover potatoes make an EXCELLENT hash for Saturday breakfast.
Convinced that harissa is life? Here are a couple actual recipes to try...
How have you used your Five-Chile Harissa Spice Blend? Share your favorite ideas here or on one of my social media pages! I love seeing my spices in the wild!!