Hands up all of you who know what harissa is. Well, that's all of you, obviously. Keep your hands up if you've used it. Yep, most of you, as I suspected. And finally, keep the hands up if you know what the word means. Ha ha! And it's such a simple word too - هرس - Mahgrebi Arabic, harasa, meaning to pound or to break into pieces. (As an aside, how does anyone learn Arabic? I understand that the same letters can sound differently and have different meanings depending upon whether they appear at the top, in the middle, or on the lower part of a line. Aaargh!)
While it's now common throughout North Africa, harissa is Tunisian in origin. In many of our kitchens it will be in powdered form, but that's simply due to the logistics of transportation. In its correct form, harissa is a paste, often referred to as the ketchup of North Africa. Its main components are chilli peppers, roasted red peppers, oil, citrus and spices. While you can make a decent approximation at home, (click here for a recipe and video) the traditional chillies are Baklouti peppers, named for the city of Bekalta. Unlike many African spice mixes, traditional harissa isn't all that fierce; however, they can vary enormously - taste first. If using the powdered stuff, use it as part of a paste with oil, tomato purée or whatever, much as I do in the cauliflower recipe below. If you're brave enough to cook chicken on a barbecue (and I'm not, as I'm always worried about it still being raw in the middle) it makes a terrific rub, or basis for a marinade. To be safer try a tray bake instead. In the recipe below, Mediterranean veg are more authentic, but use whatever you fancy.
Rose harissa is made, as the name suggests, using rose petals. I've never cooked with it*, but the books say it's pretty strong stuff. Use with care, and see the chef's tips below.
Baked Chicken with Harissa and Roast Vegetables
8 chicken thighs, skin removed, cut into about 2 - 4 pieces, depending on size.
For the marinade
3 -4 tbsp harissa paste; or 3 - 4 tbsp olive oil mixed with about 3 tsp harissa powder and 3 tsp tomato purée; 1 clove of garlic, salt and pepper.
For the roast vegetables
All of your veg should be cut into pieces of about equal size, so they cook at about the same time. Don't make them too small as they will dry out. The pieces should ideally be about 3cm square.
2 large onions; 1 bulb of fennel, trimmed; 3 peppers, deseeded (any colour apart from green - a variety will look attractive); 2 medium courgettes; 2 cloves of garlic, crushed; 3 - 4 tbsp good olive oil (in our house that means Orodeal EVOO); salt and pepper.
Trim any fat from the chicken. Place in a bowl with the marinade and leave to one side for an hour or two. Make sure it is at room temperature before starting to cook.
Preheat the oven to 180˚C/Mark 4. Spread the vegetables evenly in a roasting tin which can go on your hob. Mix well with the oil and garlic, and season well with s & p. Start the veg on the hob at a high heat until they take a little colour. Spread the chicken pieces on top. Bake for about 40 minutes. Turn the chicken after 20 minutes and give the veg a stir. Check that the chicken is cooked through. The veg should be al dente/soft, according to your preference, with a little charring at the edges.
If you're in vegetarian mode, the following is now one of our favourite side dishes. It occurs to me that it's also vegan.
Spicy Harissa Cauliflower
Preheat the oven to 190˚C/Mark 5. For 2 people cut half a medium cauliflower into florets. In a large bowl, mix together 1 generous tsp of cumin seeds, 2 - 3 tbsp good olive oil; 1 - 2 tsp harissa powder; 1 clove of garlic, crushed; 1 - 2 tbsp tomato purée; juice of half a lemon and salt. Mix all the ingredients well, then thoroughly coat the cauliflower with the mixture.
Spread on to a baking tray, brush over any extra marinade and bake for 15 - 20 minutes until tender.
A Note about Rose Harissa
When I'd embarked on this article, I suddenly remembered that in his Chef Watch column, Stuart Muir chose rose harissa as his favourite ingredient. I asked him for some tips. I can do no better than quote the words of the maestro.
A quick tip and what I do at home I use it as a rub before I grill fish. I always add it to my vegetable or chicken stocks when I’m making couscous. It’s also a great addition in a burger relish. Just add a teaspoonful to chopped gherkins, red onions , tomato mayo and mustard.
Thanks for that, Stuart. Dine Murrayfield will reopen on Monday 26 April.
*Well, when I wrote the first draft, I had indeed never used it; however, sparing no expense, I acquired a jar. A glorious warm, smoky experience with only a hint of flower. L had done the shopping and we were looking at mince and tatties for tea. Instead, I browned the mince, sweated a couple of chopped onions with a couple of chopped peppers, a chilli and two cloves of garlic. Instead of a squeeze of tomato paste, I added a good 4 tsp of the rose harissa, cooked it all down in the usual way, then added another spoonful or two just a minute or two before serving. Lovely.