Harissa: Spice Paste Extraordinaire


Harissa, the North African spice paste that blends dried chilies, garlic, paprika and some other aromatic spices, is becoming my newest kitchen workhorse.

The beauty of harissa is its gentle heat — it gives a dish depth and warmth without clearing your sinuses. It is becoming increasingly available in many grocery stores; find it by the jar in the ethnic food section. I’m partial to the freshly made version available at Condiment in Reading Terminal Market, or you can make your own, as directed below.

I was prompted to explore this ingredient further when I was left with a container that I purchased on impulse a few weeks ago. I featured it in a grain recipe and a reader submitted an inquiry about how to make it. Around the same time, I saw a Facebook chat about how to use harissa, with a huge string of comments and suggestions. I took some of the suggestions, came up with a few of my own and, as a result, burned through the surplus container and am clamoring for more harissa.

Scrambled Eggs Harissa

Scrambled eggs harissa with vegetables on crispy bread | Zolotaosen/Thinkstock

This simple, flavorful preparation is a delightful dish for any time of day. I used a lot of harissa in my eggs, but you can adjust the quantity depending on your palate.

I had this for lunch with a warmed whole wheat pita, but it would be equally good for breakfast with toast and fruit or for dinner with a simple salad and some crusty bread.

Serves one

2 eggs

1 tablespoon harissa

Pinch of salt

Butter for the pan

Heat a skillet to medium-high and melt the butter to coat the pan.

In a small bowl, beat the eggs, harissa and salt.

Pour the mixture into a pan and cook, scraping the bottom until done, approximately two minutes. Serve immediately.

Brussels Sprouts Harissa

We had these alongside a simple roasted chicken, and they were a hit. This preparation would work with any roasted vegetable — carrots, potatoes, yams, cabbage, broccoli or cauliflower to name a few.

Serves two to four

1 pound Brussels sprouts, rinsed and trimmed

2 tablespoons oil

½ teaspoon salt

Generous grind of fresh pepper

2 tablespoons harissa (or to taste)

Heat your oven to 400 degrees.

Toss the Brussels sprouts with oil, salt and pepper. Roast for 30 to 40 minutes until lightly charred.

Remove the Brussels sprouts from the oven, place them in a serving bowl and toss with the harissa.

Harissa Brisket

Harissa brisket | trexec/Thinkstock

This was flavorful, interesting and a little exotic, but also comforting and accessible, even pleasing to young and timid palates. In other words, it was a great selection for a varied crowd. I served it to a family group that ranged in age from 7 to 70, and it was a hit with everyone.

We served it with Israeli couscous, which was a great base for the sauce, but this dish would work well with rice, noodles, potatoes or quinoa. It was also great leftover.

A word on the pan: I used a large rectangular roasting pan, which was about 4 inches deep. I just heated it right on the stove to sauté the onions and sear the meat, then covered it with foil and put it in the oven. You can also use a cast-iron skillet, any ovenproof skillet or a Dutch oven.

Serves six to eight

1 brisket, about 4 pounds

Salt and pepper

4 tablespoons harissa

1 onion, sliced

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil

1 cup beef or vegetable broth

½ cup red wine

Heat your oven to 300 degrees.

Sprinkle the brisket with salt and pepper, and coat both sides with a thin layer of harissa. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a pan over medium heat and sauté the onions and garlic, about five minutes. Push the onions to one side of the pan and place the brisket in the pan to sear for about three minutes. Flip and sear the other side.

Pour the liquids over the meat, cover tightly and place in the oven for about three hours until the meat is fork tender.

Remove the meat from the oven, slice and serve with the cooking liquid as a gravy.


Harissa sauce | nobtis/Thinkstock

Store-bought harissa is quite delicious, but if you have the time and inclination to make your own, here’s a wonderful and simple recipe.

This is a slightly simpler version than many harissa recipes; I bought crushed Aleppo peppers, which provide both texture and taste. They are not pulverized into a powder, so when they mix with the oil and vinegar, they reconstitute a bit and form a thicker, less-uniform paste, which is good.

Makes about ½ cup harissa

2 cloves garlic

½ cup canola oil

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons crushed Aleppo peppers

2 tablespoons tomato paste

½ teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon ground caraway seeds (you may have to grind these yourself)

½ teaspoon salt

Place all ingredients in a blender or food processor and puree until just mixed. Allow it to sit for about an hour to enable the flavors to meld. Store in the refrigerator, tightly covered, for two weeks. 

Other ways to use harissa:

  • Mix it with mayonnaise and spread it on a sandwich with cold cuts.
  • Spread it inside a grilled cheese sandwich.
  • Mix it with vinaigrette or ranch for a zesty salad dressing.
  • Toss a couple of tablespoons in with couscous or rice for a flavorful side dish.
  • Slather it on salmon, or your favorite fish, and then roast.
  • Rub it between the skin and flesh of a roasting chicken before cooking.
  • Spoon a couple of scoops into lamb or beef stew.
  • Top a bowl of vegetable or lentil soup with a dollop of harissa.
  • Garnish a plate of hummus with harissa.


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