Local And Seasonal: Harissa

The weather's been acting a little of funny, but summer is in full swing: the piles of multi-colored peppers at farmers markets are proof. There are countless intriguing pepper varieties on display: tiny, crinkly peppers as slender as your little finger, burly-looking ones with broad shoulders and impressive girth, and curvy sculptural beauties that look as stunning as they taste. A few of these peppers are mouth-scorching, but most are sweet and mild.

I like to pick out a collection of peppers -- some that I know and others that I've never seen before -- then blend them into a spicy harissa sauce, seasoned with toasted cumin and caraway seeds. This traditional North African chile sauce is a marvelous condiment to have in your fridge during the summer months. It keeps for several weeks under a layer of olive oil, ready at a moment's notice to be smeared across toast when a friend drops by for a casual dinner. Try drizzling it over grilled vegetables or serving it alongside couscous. The beauty of homemade harissa is that the spiciness of the dish can be tailored to the cook's preference. Add more hot chiles if you like an extra kick, or dial down the spiciness by using mostly sweet peppers and including a pinch of dried mint leaves.

Choose firm chile peppers with glossy, taut skin that feel heavy for their size. One of my favorite varieties is Jimmy Nardello, a fork-sized red pepper whose seeds were brought to the U.S. in 1887 by Mr. Nardello's mother when she emigrated from the Basilicata region of Italy. Pimiento de Padrón is a vibrantly green pepper that tends to be harmlessly sweet but every so often can be unpredictably fiery. They dare you to take a bite, and I love them for it. Corno di toro peppers resemble the bull's horns for which they are named, but their flavor is surprisingly gentle. Even classic bell peppers come in a brilliant range of colors: from immature green, which can sometimes be bitter, to fully mature and flavorful red, purple, and chocolate-colored.

When handling hot chiles, wear rubber gloves. As dorky as it sounds, wearing gloves is the best way to remove the pepper's spongy inner tissue, where nearly all the pungent capsaicin molecules accumulate. It is worth it to invest in a box of rubber gloves. You can discard them after use, and you won't have to worry about rubbing the irritating molecule in your eyes or on other sensitive areas. Suit up (proudly!) and start tasting to find your favorite pepper.

Harissa
Makes about 1½ cups
This smoky hot sauce, made with roasted sweet and hot peppers, works on everything from sandwiches to grilled meats. Adjust the spiciness to your own taste by trying new combinations of various peppers.

7 ounces sweet peppers (such as bell, Banana, or Jimmy Nardello)
5 ounces hot chile peppers (such as Anaheim, serrano, or Hungarian wax)
¼ teaspoon caraway seeds
¼ teaspoon cumin seeds
3 cloves garlic, peeled
½ teaspoon sherry vinegar
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Roast the peppers directly over a gas flame on the stovetop or under a broiler until the skins completely blacken and blister. Place the charred peppers in a paper bag, and allow them to steam for a few minutes. When they are cool enough to handle, use your fingers to peel off their skins. Discard the stems, seeds, and spongy inner membranes.

Toast the caraway and cumin seeds in a small skillet over medium-high heat. When the seeds begin to pop and smell intensely fragrant, remove them from the heat. Pound them to a fine powder using a mortar and pestle.

Combine the peeled peppers and garlic cloves in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade, and purée until smooth. Add the ground spices, sherry vinegar, lemon juice, ½ teaspoon salt, and several grinds of black pepper. Pulse to combine. While the blade is spinning, slowly pour in the olive oil. The harissa should lighten a bit in color and come together as a nearly homogenous mixture. Taste for seasoning, and add another pinch of salt or splash of lemon juice if needed.

Store the harissa, covered with a thin layer of olive oil, in the refrigerator. Each time you use some harissa, pour a little more olive oil over the remainder before you return it to the fridge.

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About the Author

Maria Zizka is a Berkeley-born food writer and cook. She writes recipes and stories from a little cottage near Santa Monica Beach.
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