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Harissa

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I'm always on the lookout for new ways to use peppers, since they grown so well here in Maryland.  Recently, I was in a Mediterranean-themed restaurant where I ordered a small bowl of "harissa-red pepper dipping sauce." It arrived with a slice of warm pita bread, and as I told Chef Jerry Pellegrino, it was love at first bite.

I have heard of harissa, the fiery red seasoning from North Africa, but I hadn't actually tried it.  In this context, it was served up in a roasted red pepper mole.  So a little research was in order. 

Harissa, first of all, is a mélange of spices ground into powder form.  It can also be mixed with a liquid to produce a paste.  The principal ingredients are an assembly of hot red peppers, garlic powder, ground coriander, caraway, black pepper, and cinnamon.  Of course this is just one list of hundreds of versions of harissa recipes.  Tunisia lays claim to creating harissa, and today is still the largest exporter.

In its paste form, harissa is often used simply as a condiment.  In its powdered form, it is used as an accent in thousands of recipes.  One of the most common presentations is the one I tasted:  a roasted red pepper/harrisa mole.

I relied on my intuition as much as internet research to come up with a recipe for the dipping sauce.  Without doubt, the strongest flavor was the sweet roasted red pepper. There were a multitude of earthy, smoky flavors all tied together with that fiery kick. 

There are a few interesting techniques in the recipe.  The first, and most essential, is roasting the red peppers.  Those of you with a gas stove can simply place a de-stemmed pepper on the little island in the middle of a burner, turn the gas on and watch it roast.  Or you can cut the pepper in half, place it on a foil-lined cookie sheet, and set it six inches below the broiler in your oven. When the pepper skin scorches and become black, turn them over and broil for another minute.

Place the red-hot peppers in a bowl, and cover tightly with tin foil.  This permits the peppers to steam themselves further loosening the skin.  When cool enough to handle, peel the skin under the faucet and set aside the roasted flesh.

After that it's basically a food processor operation.  To the red bell peppers you would add one small high intensity pepper like a jalapeno, a collection of spices including ground roasted caraway seeds and a little olive oil.  And of course a tablespoon of harissa powder.

Once you process the blend, you will notice that it is watery and pale.  The solution for that is to transfer everything into a sauce pan and cook it over medium heat until it reduces to a thick paste.

The final step is critical to a good outcome:  balancing the dish.  Taste for salt

and adjust.  Taste for vegetable sweetness, and if it needs emphasis add a little brown sugar; not to sweeten but to enhance the red pepper.  Finally to add a little brightness I sprinkled a little so-called white balsamic vinegar into the dish.

If I put this recipe in a Mexican cookbook, you would call it a mole, since it is cooked down.  But regardless of the name, the outcome is delicious.

-Al Spoler 

Al's Roasted Red Pepper Harissa

Ingredients

4 red peppers

1 jalapeno pepper

2 cloves garlic

1 tsp caraway seeds

1/2 tsp cumin

1/2 tsp smoked paprika

1/2 tsp coriander powder

1/2 tsp ground black pepper

1 tsp harissa seasoning

2 tbs EVOO

salt

1 tsp brown sugar

1 tbs white balsamic vinegar

1.  Cut the peppers in half, remove stem and seeds, and place cut side down on a cookie sheet.  Place the sheet on an oven rack about 6" below your broiler.  Broil

until the skin starts to char, about 6 minutes.  Turn the peppers cut side up and broil for an additional minute.

2.  Remove the peppers from the cookie sheet and place in a large bowl.  Cover tightly with aluminum foil and set aside to cool.  The peppers will continue to steam.

3.  Meanwhile, crush and peel the two garlic cloves and slice in half.  Slice the jalapeno pepper in half lengthwise (wear gloves) and remove the stem and seeds.

Chop coarsely.

4.  In a mortar and pestle or spice grinder, grind the caraway seeds into a powder.  Combine with the cumin, paprika, coriander and harissa seasoning.

5.  When peppers have cooled down, remove the charred skin under cold running water.  Cut each piece in half, and pat dry.

6.  Place the peppers in a food processor along with the jalapeno and garlic, and the spice blend.  Add the extra virgin olive oil and puree until the mixture is fairly, but not totally smooth.  It should be slightly chunky.

7.  Taste the puree and add salt as needed.  Add the brown sugar to emphasize the pepper flavor.

8.  If the mixture is too watery, place it in a sauce pan and reduce it over medium heat.  Cover the sauce pan loosely with aluminum foil, because it will splatter.  Finally adjust the balance with the white balsamic vinegar.  The mixture should be slightly hot, slightly sweet, and filled with red pepper flavor.

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
Executive Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant is fascinated by food and wine, and the way they work in harmony on the palate. His understanding of the two goes all the way to the molecular level, drawing on his advanced education in molecular biology. His cuisine is simple and surprising, pairing unexpected ingredients together to work with Corks' extensive wine offerings.