Harissa is a North African spicy chili paste—the Sriracha of the Middle East, albeit with a more complex flavor profile. It’s commonly made from roasted or dried chile peppers, garlic, olive oil, and spices (usually coriander, cumin, caraway, mint, and sometimes rose petals). It’s an incredibly versatile condiment. If you haven’t tried shakshuka (eggs baked in a tomato-red pepper sauce with harissa and spices), that dish should be first on your list. But that’s just the beginning. I’ve used harissa as a condiment for sandwiches, roasted vegetables, fish and seafood, dressings, hummus, soups, pasta, and roasted and grilled meats.
Note: You can play around with different combinations of dried chiles to achieve your desired level of heat. Ancho, pasilla, and guajillo chiles are milder, whereas chipotles (smoked jalapeños) will provide more heat. I typically use mostly guajillo peppers, a few anchos for a fruity, raisin-like component, and one or two chipotles for heat. If you can get your hands on some Urfa biber (a ground chili from the Urfa region of Turkey), it adds a nice smokiness (add 2 teaspoons instead of using dried chipotles).
- Cut the stems off the chiles. Cut the chiles lengthwise and remove the seeds and veins. Place the chiles in a bowl. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Pour the boiling water over the chiles, weighing them down with a small plate to make sure they're submerged. Let them steep for about 1 hour, until the chiles are soft. Drain well, squeezing out any excess liquid. Discard the soaking liquid.
- Toast and grind the spices: Toast the coriander, cumin, and caraway seeds in a dry skillet over medium-low heat, swirling the pan, until the seeds are fragrant and slightly darkened, about 2 minutes. Grind in a spice grinder or by hand with a mortar and pestle.
- Roast the red pepper: Place the whole pepper directly over an open flame (on a gas range), turning every few minutes with metal tongs, until charred on all sides. (Alternatively, you could roast the pepper under a broiler or in the oven.) Place the pepper in a paper bag for 10 to 15 minutes to help loosen the skins. With a chef's knife, scrape off the charred skin and discard (don't worry if a few charred bits stick). Remove the seeds and roughly chop the pepper.
- Place the rehydrated chiles, ground spices, roasted pepper, garlic, 2 tablespoons olive oil, lemon juice, salt to taste, 2 tablespoons water, and cayenne, if using, in a food processor. Blend until the mixture forms a smooth puree. Place in a jar and cover with a thin layer of olive oil. Store harissa in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a month.