Harissa, a North African spice paste made with dried peppers, seems to be having a moment. I hadn’t even heard of it five years ago, and all of a sudden it seems to be everywhere—on TV shows like Top Chef, on restaurant menus…even on the shelf at Williams-Sonoma. In fact, any gourmet store likely to carry a jar of the stuff is probably going to charge anywhere from $9 to $13 for it. Which is too bad, because it’s quite versatile as a condiment—spread on sandwiches, stirred into soups, added to pizza, and tossed with pasta, such as in this quick-‘n’-healthy weeknight dish. Making your own harissa from scratch only takes about 30 minutes from start to finish (most of it passive time soaking the peppers) and is less than half the cost of the store-bought stuff, so it’s easy to make up a batch on a weekend and freeze it in little bags for future use.
Pasta recipe adapted from 101 Cookbooks. As below it makes 2 generous servings. The sausage could easily be left out, as per the original recipe, to make this dish vegan.
For the harissa (makes about 1 cup):
• 4 oz. equal amounts of dried New Mexico, guajillo and chipotle chiles: $2.50
• 5 garlic cloves, peeled (garden): $0
• 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt: 1 cent
• 1 1/2 tsp caraway seeds, ground: 10 cents
• 1 1/2 tsp coriander seeds, ground: 10 cents
• 2 T olive oil: 12 cents
TOTAL: $2.83/16 = 18 cents/tablespoon
NOTE: Another great use for harissa is one of my favorite appetizers: Spread 2 T harissa on a sheet of chilled puff pastry, spread evenly with 1/3 lb. mild pork sausage and about 2 T chopped parsley, and roll into a log. Slice into 1/4-inch rounds and bake at 400 F for about 20 minutes until puffed and golden.
For the pasta:
• 1 bunch kale, leaves torn, ribs removed: $1.49
• 2 T harissa paste: 36 cents
• 3 cloves garlic, peeled and mashed up or pressed through a garlic press (garden): $0
• 1/4 cup olive oil: 24 cents
• 8 oz. rigatoni or other pasta: 50 cents
• 1 link of mild Italian sausage, about 1/3-1/2 lb. (CHEATING: We got this for free…if you live in the Portland area and have access to a Chinook Book, look for the free sausage coupon from New Seasons; there are also coupons for a free reusable shopping bag and a baguette, which you can use at the same time): $0
• 1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted (also cheating: these were rung up as pistachios, and yes, I admit it, bad me, I did not correct the cashier): $1
• Zest from 1 lemon: 60 cents
• Salt: 1 cent
TOTAL: $4.20/2 = $2.10
To make the harissa, soak the peppers in hot water for 30 minutes, or until very soft. Remove the stems and seeds. Put the peppers in a small food processor or blender with the garlic and process a few times. Add the pre-ground caraway and coriander, and salt, and process a few more times. Slowly add the oil and process until it becomes a well-combined paste.
For the pasta: Whisk the 2 T harissa with the oil, garlic, and a large pinch of salt. (Taste for seasoning.) Set aside. Brown the sausage in a medium skillet over medium heat. Set aside.
Cook the pasta in salted boiling water until al dente. A minute or two before it’s done, add the kale. Drain all of it in a colander and return to the pot. Stir in the harissa-oil mixture, then add the pine nuts, sausage, and lemon zest. Serve immediately.