It always intrigues me how cuisines from one culture can be worlds apart physically yet be exact replicas in almost every other way. The Tunisian spice paste harissa and the mole pastes of Mexico are a perfect example.
I hadn’t really thought too much about their similarities until last week when I decided to make harissa from scratch for the first time. Dried chiles got toasted and soaked, whole spices were warmed filling the entire house with their fragrance, vegetables were charred under an open flame until their skins crackled and blackened. The entire process felt like second nature, incredibly familiar to one I’ve done many times making homemade mole sauces and ground chile salsas.
My inclinations probably gave my harissa more of a Mexican flavor than is traditional—smoked morita chiles and charred tomatoes I don’t think are authentic. But it made a lovely dip on it’s own and when mixed with soft chèvre goat cheese and a little bit of cream cheese to ensure lusciousness in a harissa goat cheese dip.
I made this creepingly spicy dip for gently blanched asparagus and new potatoes; a very special seasonal crudite-style platter I brought to the Friends Who Fete Bridal Shower Meg and I threw for Aida over Memorial Day weekend. Any leftover harissa goat cheese dip was quickly consumed with tortilla chips and as a drizzle over a big plate of carne asada, grilled vegetables, and rice.
All the party details will be coming out this week so make sure you follow along the #FriendsWhoFete hashtag for lots of effortlessly elegant party tips!
For the Harissa:
- 4 dried morita chiles, stemmed and seeded
- 3 dried arbol chiles, stemmed and seeded
- 1 red bell pepper, stemmed, halved, and seeded
- 1 serrano chile
- 1/2 cup cherry tomatoes
- 1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seed
- 1 1/2 teaspoons coriander seed
- 1 teaspoon caraway seed
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1/3 cup chopped red onion
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
For the Dip:
- 8 ounces soft goat cheese (chèvre)
- 2 ounces cream cheese
- Juice of 1 lemon
For the Veggies:
- 1 pound new potatoes, scrubbed
- 2 bunches asparagus, trimmed
To Make the Harissa:
- Heat broiler to high. Place dried chiles, red bell pepper, serrano chile, and cherry tomatoes on a baking sheet.
- Place baking sheet directly under the broiler and char the vegetables. Watch the dried chiles carefully as they will toast first, turn them occasionally until they are darkened on all sides, then remove and let the remaining vegetables broil.
- Remove the vegetables from the baking sheet as their skins char on all sides, the cherry tomatoes will be done next followed by the serrano and red bell pepper which could take up to 10 minutes.
- Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Add the toasted dried chiles and let soak at least 15 minutes.
- Combine cumin, coriander, and caraway in a small frying pan and toast, stirring constantly, over medium-high heat until fragrant and starting to brown, about 1 minute. Transfer to a mortar and pestle, let cool, then grind into a powder. This can also be done in a clean coffee grinder.
- Once the charred veggies are cool enough to handle, remove all charred skin and the stem of the serrano chile. Remove the serrano seeds too if you don't want it very spicy.
- Drain the dried chiles and combine all the ingredients in a blender and blend on high until very smooth. Taste and add more lemon juice or salt if needed. Harissa can be made up to 3 days in advance. Keep covered in the refrigerator until ready to use. Makes 1 1/2 cups of sauce.
To Make the Dip:
- Combine harissa, goat cheese, cream cheese, and lemon juice in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment. Blend until smooth and well combined. Taste and add salt as needed. Transfer to a serving bowl. Dip can be made up to a day in advance, covered in the refrigerator.
To prepare the Veggies:
- Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Add the potatoes, whole and cook at a gentle boil until just tender when poked with the tip of a knife. Remove with a slotted spoon to a plate.
- Add asparagus to the boiling water and cook until vibrant green and just tender, about 2 minutes. Drain and submerge in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking.
- When potatoes are cool enough to handle, cut them in half or quarters if they are big.
- Arrange the vegetables on a tray with the dip and serve.
Substitute store-bought harissa for the homemade if you'd like; you will need 1 1/2 cups for this recipe but don't add it all at once. Because the flavor of store-bought will be different you might need more or less depending on the brand and how spicy it is.
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