Sometimes described as “North Africa’s favorite hot sauce,” the popular harissa pepper paste originates from the Mahgreb region– namely Tunisia. Its name hails from the Arabic verb “harasa,” meaning “to pound” or “to break into pieces.” In its pure essence, the beloved condiment is a pounded paste of various chilies, salt, spices, garlic, and olive oil. It can be used as a flavor base for curries and stews, and is a staple spicy condiment (perhaps reminiscent of its “cousin” Sriracha), traditionally enjoyed alongside most meals in Libya, Algeria, and Morocco.
Ever since tasting the fiery, tangy chili paste, harissa has become a staple in my daily cooking. As lover of all things spicy, I have tried adding it to just about everything– eggs, sauces, dips, vegetables– and can confirm it makes for the ultimate hot sauce, with a nuanced flavor profile– a tingling spice, but still packed with a smokey, peppery flavor. Boston’s authentic Middle Eastern and North African restaurants introduced me to the rich red chili paste, alongside decadent labneh and creamy yogurt dips to subtly offset the bite of the spice. Simply put, it was a heavenly harmony like none other– and I have enjoyed my fair share of hot sauces over the years!
This prompted me to buy my own harissa paste, first from the BC neighborhood-favorite Café Landwer. This, in combination with my pasta-stocked pantry and my love for Instagram reel recipes, led me to the uncharted territory of “harissa pasta.” At first, I was skeptical– pasta with harissa paste? I thought of how my dad and Nonni taught me to make pasta– the Italian pasta purists who would undoubtedly question the seemingly unorthodox addition. But, true to the passion for food they instilled in me, and my own adventurous nature, I decided to coat my noodles in the romantically-red sauce anyway. Besides, how wrong could mixing two of my favorite foods go? It was by no means a recipe for disaster, but it was perhaps a recipe for the ambitious.
The innovative recipe proved to be a pleasant surprise, balancing the heat with flavors of thyme, olives, capers, red wine, and balsamic vinegar, as well as the creaminess of tangy Greek yogurt. Thanks to this recipe, I’m convinced that harissa is the creative complement to any tasty meal. Its garlicky profile is effortlessly brightened by the acidity of ingredients like tomatoes and citrus, so it is quite versatile, and its flavors can be mellowed or intensified as desired. It adds depth and complexity to any dish; mixed with flirty heat, it becomes an addictive dance for the taste buds (not to mention a great way to clear out the sinuses!) All jokes aside, harissa is “worth the hype.” Whether you are a proud participant in the hot sauce craze or working on building your spice tolerance, add harissa to your list and be prepared for an exciting experience– it’s as if you could taste the bright, bold sun.
- 1 large onion, diced finely
- 1-2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 3 tbsp red wine
- 3 tbsp Balsamic vinegar
- 1 (14-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
- 1 tsp thyme, fresh or dried
- 2-3 tsp harissa paste
- 1 tsp agave
- Salt, to taste
- 1 box pasta, preferably long, wide noodles like fettuccine
- 2 tbsp olives, chopped
- 2 tsp capers, chopped
- Parsley and Greek yogurt for topping
Begin by frying the onion in oil until soft and translucent. Deglaze the pan with the red wine and balsamic vinegar and let it simmer for five minutes. Add the tomatoes, thyme, harissa paste, and agave for a hint of sweetness. Stir well and add salt to taste. You can also add more harissa depending on your spice preference, but be careful to preserve the balance of the flavors. Let the sauce simmer on low heat while you boil water to prepare the pasta. Cook the pasta until al dente. Right before adding the pasta to the sauce, add the olives and capers. Then, incorporate the pasta with a bit of pasta water and parsley. Mix it all together and top with a touch of Greek yogurt. Enjoy a plate piled high with spicy, garlicky, aromatic pasta! This recipe makes about four servings.
Recipe copied from “Sophia’s Harissa Pasta” on @fitgreenmind (Maya)’s Instagram page
Cover photo courtesy of Hint of Healthy