In October I took a road trip with my Dad to Santa Fe. A little more than an hour from El Paso, the brown scrubby landscape gave way to green fields. We had reached Hatch, NM, a chile Mecca disguised as a tiny, dusty and unremarkable town in the middle of nowhere. We pulled over into the first store we came across right off the highway, just in time for that day’s chile roasting to begin. The smell was amazing, a pungent mix of sweet pepper and spice mixed with smoke from the charred pepper skins.
I excitedly stocked up on dried chiles, and a few days after I got home to SF, I got a box in the mail filled with my loot: green chile flakes, chipotle chile flakes, and two bags of dried chiles, one marked “medium” and one marked “hot.” I divided everything and gave half to my sister when I went to visit her in Boston a few weeks later. She was so excited and grateful for my generous gift that she promptly used some of the chile flakes in a huevos rancheros sauce so spicy it made me cry, as sweat poured out of me and my tongue went numb. Meanwhile, I still had a huge pile of dried chiles I had no idea what to do with.
After the warning shot fired by the chile flakes, I was understandably wary of using the actual dried chiles, scared of what I might unleash on unsuspecting friends. I finally used the “medium” chiles in a Texas chili I made for the super bowl. It was spicier than I planned, but not unbearable when topped with a generous garnish of fritos. It was hard to know whether the culprit was my New Mexico chiles or the six jalapenos also in the pot, so I optimistically started making plans for my “hot” peppers.
I decided on Harissa, since I found several recipes online calling for New Mexico chiles. After some research, I came up with a recipe I hoped wouldn't be inedibly spicy. I thought combining the New Mexico chiles with some smoky dried chipotles I also had lying around would temper the heat a bit and make for a nice flavor.
The end result was indeed nicely smoky. It is also definitely best used sparingly as a condiment and not eaten right off the tasting spoon, a lesson I learned the hard way.
A search on the internet for Harissa yielded plenty of results; my recipe wound up a blend of the Smitten Kitchen and Saveur recipes. Both recipes called for the same spices and I adjusted amounts to my taste, same with the garlic, and I kept the lemon juice from the Saveur recipe and omitted the mint. The Smitten Kitchen recipe interestingly called for roasted red bell pepper and sun dried tomatoes. I skipped the bell pepper but kept the sun-dried tomato.
This made almost a full cup, but can easily be halved or doubled.
2 oz. dried chile (New Mexico, guajillo, chipotle, or ancho ; I used a 50/50 mix of New Mexico and chipotle)
2 sun dried tomatoes (packed in oil or dry-packed; if using dry-packed soak with chiles)
2 cloves garlic, peeled
¼ tsp caraway seeds
¼ tsp coriander seeds
¼ tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Juice of ½ lemon
- Pour boiling water over dried chiles in a bowl or pot and soak for 20 minutes. If they try to float place a small plate or pot lid in the water to keep them submerged.
- Meanwhile, toast your spices in a small skillet over medium heat for a few minutes, until fragrant. Grind in a spice mill or mortar and pestle until powdery.
- When chiles have soaked drain off liquid and stem and seed chiles as necessary. The more seeds you leave in the spicier your harissa will be.
- In a food processor or blender, combine chiles, sun dried tomatoes, garlic, spices, salt, olive oil, and lemon juice. Pulse to combine until very smooth.
- Transfer to a glass jar or container and top with about ½ inch olive oil and refrigerate. Harissa will keep for a few weeks. After each use, top off with more oil, if needed.