Roasted Vegetable Harissa

Anyone who enjoys the foods of northern Africa is familiar with harissa, the chile-based condiment that often accompanies the meal. It comes in innumerable variations, from a chile-hot thick “broth” ladled into soup or over couscous to a thick paste of chiles (either toasted or not,) vegetables (cooked or not,) seasonings, and oil.

This particular iteration is rather like a thick, textured mayonnaise with the emulsion based on roasted vegetables instead of egg. It‘s a variation on the recipe for Mo’s Harissa in Wild Flavors by Didi Emmons, but Ms. Emmons’s version just dries out the vegetables in a warm oven for a little while, while I like them actually roasted. 
For the hot element, I dip into a small canning jar kept in my refrigerator in which I keep one large or two small cans of chipotles in adobo that have been put through the blender with just enough olive oil to keep the blades turning. It adds a mildly smoky garlicky hot element that makes the harissa taste as if the vegetables were roasted over a wood fire. But you can also use a few toasted ground Guajillo chiles, or a couple of fresh jalapeño chiles roasted with the peppers, or even a heaping spoonful of Kashmiri chile flakes.

I make this in larger batches because we eat a lot of it and I give some away, but you can cut the recipe in half easily.

First, put a teaspoon of cumin seed and half a teaspoon of caraway seed in a small skillet and toast briefly over a medium flame just until the scent comes up. They shouldn’t darken more than a shade. Grind in a spice/coffee grinder or pound thoroughly in a mortar and pestle. Set aside.

Coarsely chop 3-4 cloves of garlic, and chop the stems of a bunch of cilantro. Save the leaves. Set aside.

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Then, start with your bell peppers. While making a run through a big box store I picked up a bag of six bell peppers, two each of red, orange, and yellow. You can use any combination of these colors that you want, and you can substitute a green bell pepper for one of the ripe ones if you want to. Wash the peppers, seed and core them, and cut them in chunks. Put them on a baking sheet. If you want to use fresh jalapeños for the hot element, seed and core one or two, cut in chunks, and add to the bell peppers. If you line the baking sheet with baking parchment, it will make your life easier later on. Roast at 325° for 30 minutes, then put the chopped garlic and chopped cilantro stems on the sheet too and continue roasting to your preferred degree of doneness, which for me is when they have a definitely roasted look as shown below. Keep the garlic by itself so that you can take it off the sheet if it’s browning too fast. Be sure not to let the garlic turn brown or burn.

Now put the roasted peppers, cilantro stems, and garlic in a food processor and process to a chunky paste. Add 2 tablespoons of lemon juice or a chopped quarter of a preserved lemon and a teaspoon of salt, more or less. Add your chipotle paste or toasted ground chiles if you didn’t use jalapeños. With the processor running, pour in very good olive oil in a slow stream until the texture is the way you want it. It’s hard to say how much oil you will use. Have at least a cup handy, and if you use less, no harm done. I aim for a smooth but textured gloppiness as shown in the top photo, but you could also make it in a blender instead of a food processor and blend it completely smooth if you wanted. Add the ground spices and taste for heat and salt. Adjust if needed. Scrape into a bowl and start putting it on stuff. 
I love cilantro leaves chopped over the top but don’t like the leaves blended into the harissa at all; it makes the texture odd and it doesn’t keep as long. But suit yourself.


I think this harissa has a particular affinity for eggs, and we recently made a quick meal of scrambled eggs and hot buttered basmati rice in a bowl with a lavish amount of harissa and chopped cilantro leaves. Delicious. I also like to make a spicy egg salad with hard-boiled eggs and harissa and pile it on a chunk of good baguette. 

Put a good spoonful alongside a greens borek or on top of horta. Or nearly anywhere else.

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