by Jeanne

Harissa is a red chili paste originating with the Berber people in Tunisia. The harissa sauce (pronounced huh-REE-suh) is made from hot chiles, garlic, cumin, coriander, caraway and olive oil. Harissa is served with cous cous and is also used in soups and stews. Commercially-produced <a href="harissa in tubesand jars can be easily purchased in Middle Eastern grocery stores.

It can be served as a dip for cooked meat or stirred into casseroles and soups to give a fiery kick. Stir a little harissa into natural yogurt to make a tasty marinade for chicken and pork dishes. Harissa can also be added to couscous to give a spicy flavor. Mix a little harissa with some mayonnaise or stock and serve it as an accompaniment to thick vegetable or fish soup.

Tunisians mix it liberally with almost every dish, while Algerians and Moroccans prefer to serve it on the side, adding it according to individual taste. The kick of your harissa will depend upon the variety of dried chile peppers used to make the harissa. If you are ambitious and want to make it yourself for a mild harissa choose a New Mexico red or guajillo; for medium, pasilla or a chipotle; and use cayenne or habanero for a fiery flavored harissa.

Clifford Wright the writer and scholar of Mediterranean food writes about “harisa” in A Mediterranean Feast:

Harisa comes from the Arabic word for “to break into pieces,” which is done by pounding hot peppers in a mortar, although today a food processor can be used. This famous hot chili paste is also found in the cooking of Algeria, Libya, and even in western Sicily, where cuscusu is made. In Tunisia it would be prepared fresh in a spice shop.

Harissa is worth having in the kitchen as it elevates the ordinary to something special and unique. At about $3.00 a tube it’s money well spent.

Stuffed Peppers with Vegetables & Spiced Couscous

Serves 4

2 medium bell peppers that will stand up, cut lengthwise

2 Tbs. olive oil
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 large sweet potato, peeled pre-cooked, diced 1/2-inch pieces
Pinch saffron (or tumeric)
2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
1/4 cup currants
1 1/2 cups couscous

1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
1/2 teaspoon salt

Immerse sweet peppers into boiling water (seasoned with 3 teaspoons of vegetable or chicken flavored bouillon) for 3 minutes. Remove peppers from water and sprinkle the insides wtih 1 teaspoon bouillon.

In large nonstick pan, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 5 to 6 minutes. Add garlic, red pepper flakes, cumin, cinnamon and cook, stirring often, until fragrant, about 1 minute.

Add saffron and broth. Increase heat and bring liquid to a boil. Add currants.

Meanwhile, in medium skillet, heat remaining tablespoon oil over medium heat. Add couscous and cook, stirring often, until lightly coated with oil, 2 to 3 minutes. In small saucepan, bring 2 cups water to a boil. Add boiling water and pinch of salt to couscous. Stir a couple of times; cover and let stand until all water is absorbed, about 10 minutes. Add harissa and “fold and fluff with fork to combine sauce with cous cous.

Combine cous cous with sweet potato and currants.

Fill pepper halves with mixture and bake for another 7-14 minutes until heated through. Before serving sprinkle mint on top and serve.