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What is Harissa? An Award-Winning Chef Explains

BY: Sandra Kofler | Nov 19, 2015

"What is harissa?" is a pretty good question if you've been keeping tabs on restaurant trends lately. The ingredient has been popping up on menus all over the country, but that doesn't mean everyone's familiar with its flavor. So, well, what is harissa? Simply put, it's a North African chili ingredient made from hot peppers, garlic, olive oil, and spices. Its sudden popularity might remind you of other star hot sauces like Sriracha, but harissa isn't always meant to be slathered on top of food.

"You're just adding a small amount. It's not just one-dimensional heat," says Jared Van Camp, the award-winning executive chef of Chicago restaurants like Old Town Social and Nellcôte. "It's about layering spices and heat. In the right amount, they harmonize and become more than a sum of their parts."

It's true. Harissa paste on its own can be almost throat-closing spicy. But Van Camp and other chefs use harissa to add acidity, richness, and flavor to a number of dishes ("Added to a dish, it's transcendent," he says.)

After Chef Van Camp clarifed what is harissa, we asked him to share six of his favorite ways to incorporate this chili paste. We recommend using these suggestions in your search for the best harissa recipe:

[Ed. note: Duck wings photo appears courtesy of Old Town Social. None of the additional photos are from Chef Van Camp's restaurants. Instead, we found photos to best match his descriptions of the dishes.]

1. Harissa duck wings

"[This] dish at Old Town Social. [It's] been on the menu since day one, and it's not going anywhere. It's a take on spicy buffalo chicken wings with ranch or bleu [cheese]. We confit duck legs, then we crisp them up, then we toss them in the sauce. Then we make a raita-style sauce to dip them in instead of bleu cheese."

2. Roasted Pork with a Harissa Rub

"I'll use some of the Old Town Social harissa we make [from scratch], and I'll braise a pork shoulder with it at home or something. It's amazing."

3. Baked merguez lamb sausage with harissa, feta, and tagliatelle

"One of my favorite—and one of the most classic—preparations is adding [it] to lamb sausage, [or] merguez."

4. Pizza with pepperoni and harissa-infused merguez sausage

"Making a harissa and using that in the lamb sausage—you can put that on a pizza."

5. Wood-roasted mussels in harissa-scented broth

"It goes well with mussels. In a broth, it's great. I can't remember where I had it, but I know I had like wood-roasted mussels with harissa and it was ... awesome."

6. Kidney and garbanzo beans with harissa and poached eggs.

"Harissa on its own is usually spicy, but you're just adding a small amount. ... When you buy those tubes [of harissa from a store], just a little squeeze is meant to be in a whole dish. Just a little squirt in a pot of whole beans would be enough."

 

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Guide Staff Writer
BY: Sandra Kofler
Guide Staff Writer