Harissa (pronounced: hair-eee-saa) is an ancient table condiment and seasoning created by the cooks of the Maghreb. The Maghreb is Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya.
This is traditionally a homemade product and that allows for each cook to express their creativity. Some harissas contain exotic ingredients or chiles (my preferred spelling) found only in that part of the world. Cubeb peppers (or cubeb chiles) are one example. Rose water or rose petals are another. This recipe uses ingredients easily available in the Western Hemisphere. Recipes I have seen online call for using dried chiles. This recipe is different, in that it uses only fresh chiles. Several recipes I've read call for soaking the chiles in water or liquids and discarding the bulk of the liquids. To me that is like throwing the flavor away. It defeats the purpose of making the homemade foodstuff. I know that some of Mexican cuisine reconstitutes chiles and makes sauce. But I have no evidence that the Maghrebis do this. The United Nation's F.A.O. has a standard for harissa and it calls for fresh chiles (and garlic).
Harissa is mostly called a paste rather than a sauce. Some harissa is sold in tubes, like toothpaste. The tubed varieties, are a smoother and seed free product. This recipe makes a more homemade version.
Typically harissa is mixed with ketchup for hamburgers. Used full strength on chicken wings. As a condiment for eggs, on roasted vegs, and with some pastas. It's an interesting adjunct to black or green olives. A heaping tablespoon to a cup or two of olives. Stand for 24 hours. Great mezze or tapas.
Step 1: New Mexico Chiles -- the Main Ingredient
Pictured are fully ripe New Mexico Chiles. Some markets call these Anaheim Chiles. As all the seeds for Anaheim chiles came from New Mexico, I choose to call them New Mexico or sometimes NuMex. The habanero looks yellow instead of orange as it tries to hide amongst the milder New Mexico chiles.
I found these at my local market for one pound for two dollars in August (2016). I suggest that is a good price. I have seen red jalapeños for $5 a pound. I'm too frugal to make harissa at that price. If you want hotter harissa, you know what to do.
Step 2: The Remaining Ingredients
Ingredient list and weights (for my batch) -- yours can and should vary to your taste
750 grams or 1 3/4 pounds NuMex chiles
22 grams garlic or 1 head
12 grams habanero chile or 1 large
10 grams cumin seeds or 2 tsp
10 grams caraway seeds or 2 tsp
12 grams mustard flour, mixed with 15 grams water OR 1 heaping tablespoon (if you cannot purchase mustard flour, use yellow or Dijon mustard - it's not critical to this dish)
50 mL of lemon juice or the juice of one lemon
75 mL extra virgin olive oil (or canola oil), again not critical or about 3 tablespoons (this will vary greatly)
1 gram of fresh mint leaves or 12 to 15 leaves
15 grams salt or 1 tbs
8 grams black pepper or 2 tsp.
.9 grams of sodium benzoate (optional)
In place of the habanero, you can use more chile chipotle or chile morita. As habanero chiles are 5 to 10 times hotter than chipotles and moritas, adjust the weight accordingly. Either one will help impart a smoky character to this sauce. In the Maghreb, a chile is used that is both smokey and raisin flavored.
Step 3: Manufacturing the Sauce
In a 12 qt. stockpot, simmer the red NuMex chiles for 15 minutes. Remove to a colander to cool. Gather and weigh remaining ingredients. While the chiles are cooling, peel garlic, mix mustard flour with water. Cover mustard to prevent skin forming. The mustard must sit a full 10 minutes to develop it's full flavor.
When the red chiles are cool enough to touch, put on a pair of nitrile (or latex) gloves.
Pull off the stems of the red chiles. Split them and remove seeds as can be done easily with the hands; a few will remain. Split them lengthwide where they will tear apart easily. Set aside to prep the remainder of the ingredients. Put the whole spices (but not the mint) in a heated skillet and toast (or call it roast) them for about a minute or two until they release their fragrance. Remove to a bowl to allow time to cool.
Stem the habanero, slice into pieces remove veins and seeds. Wash your gloved hands after handling this chile. DO NOT touch skin, eyes or your nose. I've made a mistake doing this but lived to tell about it. Learn from my error, people.
Set aside the garlic and habanero in a bowl. Reserve. Put the whole spices in a spice blender with the salt, pepper and sodium benzoate (if using the sodium benzoate). Grind to a dust.
In the food processor, put the New Mexico chiles, pulse to make chunky. Add the garlic and Habanero chile. Pulse to incorporate. Add the spices, mint leaves and lemon juice. Pulse a few more times to blend this.
With the processor running, add enough olive oil to make a thick sauce. Still wearing gloves, transfer the harissa to a jar. Allow to stand 24 hours at room temperature to blend the flavors. After 24 hours the sauce will thicken. Harissa is typically mixed with more oil or water before being used as an ingredient.
If you are not using the sodium benzoate, cover the surface of the harissa by 1/4" with the same oil used to blend the sauce together. This is how it was anciently preserved.
Wash your gloved hands in hot soapy water, remove the gloves and use another time or discard.
Sodium benzoate is a chemical preservative approved by both the European Governments and the U.S.A.'s FDA for use in food. It's used in the ratio of .1% weight by weight. For example: if your ingredients weigh exactly 1000 grams, you would use 1.0 grams of sodium benzoate (yielding a total weight of 1001 grams). I have a gram scale that can weight accurately to .1 gram. That means that the measure I used for this recipe is as high as 1 gram and as low as .8 grams. The scale read .9 grams. That is the correct amount for this recipe.