Smoky Roast Capsicum Harissa
If you forget me
I want you to know
You know how this is:
if I look
at the crystal moon, at the red branch
of the slow autumn at my window,
if I touch
near the fire
the impalpable ash
or the wrinkled body of the log,
everything carries me to you,
as if everything that exists,
aromas, light, metals,
were little boats
toward those isles of yours that wait for me.
If You Forget Me
- Pablo Neruda
Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), whose writing I love, clearly appreciated food, for, apart from the poem above which is one of his most famous works, his many verses included An Ode to the Artichoke, An Ode to Maize, An Ode to Salt, An Ode to a Lemon, Ode to the Tomatoes, An Ode to Wine, and (would you believe) An Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market! Such passion for good things!
Had he not succumbed to leukemia, I feel certain the Nobel-prize winning Neruda (whose real name, incidentally, was Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto) would have eventually penned An Ode to the Chilli and An Ode to Bell Peppers as well.
My snippet this week is a memorable Harissa that combines the warm bite of chillies, the smoky flavour of roasted capsicums (bell peppers), smooth EVOO and freshly ground, freshly roasted coriander and cumin seeds. I have adapted a recipe from one by legendary cookery teacher and author, Diane Holuigue, in her Postcards from Kitchens Abroad.
Food history tells us that harissa originated in North Africa and the main ingredient is always dried chillies, which bring a lovely depth of flavour to the condiment. In The Cook's Companion, Stephanie Alexander revisits meals she enjoyed during a 1993 trip to Tunisia: 'This fiery paste was seemingly eaten at every meal! When we sat down to eat, flat earthenware dishes were place in front of us with a healthy blob of harissa ringed with the rich, buttery olive oil of the region, and a basked of flatbread'. Alexander says she discovered the pleasure of 'puddling the bread in enough harissa and then allowing it to soak up some of the delicious oil'. Yum!
For the best results, use market-fresh capsicums, good quality EVOO and the finest quality coriander and cumin seeds, and dried chilli*. Grind the coriander and cumin seeds in a spice grinder, before you toast them, you will be amazed by the aroma and complex depth of flavours.
ROASTED CAPSICUM HARISSA
3 large red capsicums (bell peppers)
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 tablespoon cumin seed
3 tablespoons dried red chilli flakes*
a pinch of sea salt
1 cup extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)
a little extra oil, to finish
Wash and dry the capsicums. Place them (whole) on a foil lined tray and roast them under a hot grill, turning, until the skins blacken all over. While the capsicums are roasting, grind the coriander and cumin seeds in a spice grinder, then gently toast the mixture (dry) in a frypan over low heat, taking care not to let it burn. Set aside.
Working quickly, peel and discard the blackened skins from the capsicums, as well as the seeds and core. Place the capsicum flesh into a food processor, together with the ground cumin and coriander, salt and chilli flakes. Start blending and gradually add the EVOO. Process until you have a nicely textured harissa paste. Spoon the harissa into a sterilised jar and pour in extra EVOO to stop the paste from drying out or oxidising. Seal. Each time you use some of the harissa, pour a little oil over the top. This quantity makes about 2 cups.
*To dry you own home grown chillies, thread them onto string and air dry them in a well ventilated room. You can also dry them in an oven; this takes a few hours at a low temperature. Or use a food dehydrator, if you have one.
The process in pictures... grind, roast, toast, blend...
So, if you were to write an Ode to a food, as Pablo Neruda did, what would it be and what would you say? Tell me, please. And please feel free to write some verse to share with our readers, if you will.
Hello. I'm Liz, a writer, cook and traveller based in Canberra, Australia.
Join me as I share with you my favourite recipes, postcards and morsels from my adventures, conversations with cookery writers
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.