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Harissa: The Best Pepper Sauce You’ve Probably Never Heard About

Piri Piri

Tunisia has some interesting cuisine. Sandwiched in-between much larger neighbors (Libya and Algeria), this fairly new member of the international community is about the size of Georgia (the U.S. state, not the country) and has an interesting mix of geographies and climates. Maybe an easier way to visualize the size of Tunisia is, it’s only slightly larger than Portugal, with almost as much coastline.

Most folks think pretty much all of north Africa is simply coast and desert. Tunisia has mountains too, and a temperate climate in the north that supports extensive agriculture. With over 1,100 kilometers of Mediterranean beach front, fishing is important, and seafood is a large component of Tunisia’s diet.

What you really may not know is, they love it zesty in Tunisia! Particularly the very hot pepper paste, harissa.

Harissa isn’t exclusive to Tunisia, but they have special variations that pump up both the heat and the flavor. The source of heat is the piri-piri chile, with garlic, mint (dried or fresh), caraway, cumin, coriander (dried seed or fresh leaves), salt, lemon juice and olive oil as potential partners. Not all those items need be present, and indeed, Tunisian households often have their own secret versions. Harissa is used in many dishes, flavoring meat or fish stews or couscous. It’s available as a commercial item, though very hard to find in most American regions.

Harissa isn’t hard to make at home, though! Here’s a simple version. (Here’s a video.) You can substitute any other fresh, hot chile of your choosing, or tone it down with a mixture of hot chiles and roasted red bell pepper pieces (from a jar is fine). The beauty of harissa is, exact measures aren’t really key. Use a mortar and pestle to grind things up, as the amount is often too small for a blender.

Here’s a classic Tunisian recipe which uses harissa:

Lamb Couscous With Harissa

  • 3 tablespoons light olive oil
  • 2 onions, peeled and quartered
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
  • 2-3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 teaspoons harissa (more or less to taste)
  • 4 bulbs of fennel, stalks removed, then quartered; reserve the fronds!
  • 14 ounces very warm water
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 2 cups couscous
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • A pat or two of butter
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 8 cutlets of lamb, cut thin
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Prepare the sauce and veggies: In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, cook the onions and garlic in olive oil. While that’s cooking, mix together tomato paste, harissa and about a pint of water in a bowl. After onions turn translucent, add tomato mixture, bring to a boil, then add fennel pieces. Reduce to simmer, cover and cook for 10 minutes.

Make the couscous: Add salt to water in a bowl, then add couscous. Let stand for 10 minutes, then rub the olive oil into the couscous.

Remove the vegetables from the cooking liquid using a slotted spoon, and retain in a warmed bowl. Turn up the heat to boil the liquid, and reduce it to make a slightly thickened sauce.

Melt butter in a heavy frying pan, season the lamb and brown the cutlets. Add cutlets to the reduced liquid and simmer for 10-15 minutes, or until lamb is tender. While that’s cooking, heat the oven to about 350° F (180° C). Place the couscous into an oven-proof casserole and spread around to make a base. Sprinkle some bits of butter over the base, then chop the retained fennel fronds (not too many!) and sprinkle over the couscous. Cover with foil and heat in the oven for 15-20 minutes. While that’s cooking, add the veggies back to the lamb and sauce on the stove; keep the lamb mix at a very slow simmer.

When the couscous is ready, fluff it with a fork, then mound onto a serving dish. Arrange cutlets around the edge and spoon the vegetables on top of everything. Use some of the sauce to moisten the couscous, and place the rest of the sauce on the table for diners to sample as they wish.

Using packaged couscous is simpler, of course, and may be the best answer if you’re not comfortable with classic couscous preparation. This dish will also work with other meats, like thin-sliced chicken breast, but the lamb adds a special savor and aroma.

Don’t forget to put the harissa on the table with the meal! And keep a bit in the fridge, in case you get a sudden attack of the snackies at midnight; it goes with pretty much anything that can stand a sauce; I haven’t tried bananas yet…

Pump Up the (Fiery Piri-Piri Sauce) Heat!

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