First suggestion for goodest cooks: Find something you like to eat and try to make it.
I can't tell you how many times I've liked something, wanted more of it, and decided I could just make it myself. This is why I can make "Polynesian roll" sushi like they used to have at Tower Cafe, chocolate chewies like we get from the awesome grocery store in Eugene, Oregon, and grain-stuffed chile rellenos like they make at Roxy.
On Wednesdays, we get deli sandwiches from the grocery a couple blocks down. They're a little slow sometimes, so I like to wander the aisles. One day, I saw a tube of harissa paste. I'd heard of it but never tried it, so I bought a tube. It was eight dollars. We tried it, and soon my husband was squeezing it onto everything! I watched about four dollars of it land on a bowl of risotto. Long story short, it was delicious but expensive.
So I decided to try to make it. First, I looked up several recipes on the web. They were all similar, but different. Some called for fresh mint, others called for jarred roasted peppers. One had fresh peppers, one had dried, another had canned. One extolled the virtues of caraway seeds while another said only coriander would do. Here's what my thought was: If everyone has a different recipe, it doesn't matter much what I use exactly. I went to the Mexican market for spices, since they're cheap there (more on that in another post later), and I had a list in my hand of the ingredients that I most wanted to use.
I picked up coriander, fresh mint, fresh cilantro, two kinds of dried peppers (guajillo and de arbol). I had caraway seeds and garlic at home already. My total was about $3, a good start considering the price of the pre-made stuff. Why did I choose those ingredients out of all the ones I could have picked? Because they're the ones I liked. If I make something and it doesn't seem to work ("too minty!"), I'll try it again later another way. I decided, for instance, to go with a garlic-heavy variety because my family likes garlic. If you are one of those folks who thinks cilantro tastes metallic and bitter, just don't use it.
In short, I'm telling you what ingredients and amounts I used, but I'm giving you license to play around. Particularly consider the heat issue: if you don't love super-spicy foods, stick with milder peppers, like all guajillo.
3 cups boiling water
5 guajillo chiles (about 1 ounce)
30 de arbol chiles (about 3/4 ounce)
1/2 cup garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 tsp cumin
2 tsp caraway seeds
1/2 tsp paprika
1 tsp coriander
3 Tbs lemon juice
2 tsp salt
1/2 cup mint leaves, washed and loosely packed
1/2 cup cilantro, washed and loosely packed
Take the stems off the chiles and put them in a bowl. Tear or cut larger chiles into smaller pieces. Pour boiling water over the chiles and let stand for 20 minutes.
In the meantime, put all the other ingredients in a food processor. If you feel like it, give it a couple whirls.
When the chiles are done soaking, scoop them out with a slotted spoon and leave the water in the bowl. Add the chiles to the food processor and about 1/4 cup of the soaking water, and whirl everything around for forty seconds or so. Check it out. If it's kind of a paste, you're good. If you want it smoother, whirl it some more. Now taste it. If you think it needs more lemon, salt, caraway or whatever, add it and whirl more.
(I wasn't quite done at this point -- I wanted mine a bit smoother.)
At this point, if it's too hot, remember that it's a condiment to be used in small amounts. You can always tame the heat by serving it with yogurt, sour cream, labneh, cheese... something dairy. I thought it was delicious, but I will add more caraway next time, as that's the unusual flavor I'm drawn to in harissa.
So if it's a condiment, how do you use it? However you want! I thought it might be really good on roasted root vegetables, particularly carrots and potatoes. I know many people use it on meats, either as a condiment or mixed with something as a marinade. I plan to eat most of mine on pita chips with hummus. I'm also going to mix it with ketchup for sweet potato fries this week.
So how did I use it? Tonight we ate...
Couscous pilaf with roasted harissa asparagus.
The asparagus is easy:
1 bunch asparagus
2 Tbs harissa
2 Tbs olive oil
Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Whisk (or fork) together the harissa and olive oil.
Trim the ends of the asparagus (the easiest way to do this is to just put both thumbs near the end of a spear and try to break it -- wherever it breaks is right) and put it in a single layer in a pan (it really doesn't matter what kind, as long as it has sides so they don't roll off). Smear the harissa mixture over the asparagus, making sure to get the tips covered (they can burn if you don't have some oil on them). Roast them for ten minutes (or a bit longer if you really prefer them soft).
(Pre-smearing. You'll notice I segregated some for my daughter, who is not into spicy foods.)
1 1/2 cup dry couscous
1 can chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
about 1/4 cup loose mint leaves
3/4 cup tomatoes, chopped
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
salt and pepper to taste
For the couscous, prepare it as directed on the box (it's almost always the same amount of couscous as water, you boil the water, add the couscous, stir it up, take it off the heat, and wait five minutes, then fluff it up).
Drain and rinse the can of chickpeas (or if you don't like them, some other kind of bean or none at all) and add them to the cooked couscous. Finely chop the fresh mint and throw that in. Squeeze about 1/4 cup of lemon juice in (my family preferred more). Add chopped tomatoes or halved cherry tomatoes. Crumble the feta and add it, too. Add salt and pepper to taste and mix the whole thing gently.
A couple notes on this -- it's a very flexible recipe, so if you want to add something or leave something out, feel free. My husband squeezed a little more lemon on at the end, and it probably could have used a touch of olive oil. I didn't add any salt, because feta is a pretty salty cheese. I like the chickpeas because I like to have a little protein in my dinner. If you eat meat, this would probably be lovely with some grilled or roasted chicken.
Although I didn't end up using any of these exactly, I did consult these recipes, and you could certainly try one of them if it appealed to you.
So that's all for blog post #1. I really hope it's useful. Let me know in the comments, particularly if you try anything.