What’s that red stuff? – Harissa.
It’s hot. – Don’t take too much of it.
Brussels by Night (1983)
What is harissa? Harissa is a hot chile pepper paste comprised of dried red chiles, fragrant spices, olive oil and garlic. It is supposed to have originated in Tunisia, and is most closely associated with Tunisian, Algerian, and Libyan cuisines. It is becoming quite popular in Moroccan cuisine as well. Harissa paste is available commercially, but it just doesn’t match the fresh, vibrant flavors achieved in your kitchen with your own toasted spices, fresh ingredients, and good dried chiles. Recipes vary greatly; the paste may include fresh or dried mint, roasted red bell pepper in addition to the dried chiles, lemon juice, etc. The chiles that provide the heat may be hot like cayenne and chile de arbol, or milder like ancho. You can use any chiles you like and have on hand. North African varieties are not necessary to make an authentic harissa paste.
Living in New Mexico, I typically have New Mexico dried red chiles on hand, as well as guajillo, ancho, and chile de arbol. I have experimented with chile combinations, and really like the combination of hot New Mexico dried red chiles with the milder guajillo chiles widely used in Mexico. Stick with milder varieties, and consider adding a roasted red bell pepper to the mixture if you prefer a milder paste.
I’ve answered the “what” question, and if I’ve piqued your curiosity, you might ask “how” might this delicious condiment be used. It is an exceptionally versatile condiment. Rub it into meat and poultry (as I’ve done with this recipe), add a scoop to melted butter to brush on vegetables before or after roasting, add a bit to flavor couscous, use it to flavor soups and stews, spread it on sandwiches. This simple recipe for Roasted Harissa Chicken Thighs may provide the inspiration to use in many other interesting ways…
Harissa paste will keep up to 3 weeks in your refrigerator. I like to store my paste in a clear glass jar with a locking lid. Top the harissa paste with a 1/2″ of olive oil to store. This recipe will make 6-12 ounces – depending on chiles used, how much olive oil is used, whether you strain it, etc. I typically have enough for 2 meals with this recipe. If you don’t think you’ll use it within this time frame, freeze the leftover paste in a zip bag. It is difficult to achieve a completely smooth texture, and for most people that won’t be a problem. However, you may press the mixture through a strainer to achieve a very smooth texture.
I really prefer bone-in chicken thighs whenever they’re to be served whole. Bone-in cuts are more flavorful, and have the added benefit of being less expensive (in most cases.) If you prefer to substitute boneless thighs, or even breast meat, you will need to adjust the cooking time accordingly. Once you’ve made your harissa paste, this recipe could not be more simple. Sear your thighs in a hot pan over high heat, brush with harissa paste, and finish by roasting in the oven for 20-30 minutes. Top with a dollop of plain Greek yogurt combined with chopped fresh mint and sea salt. I like to serve this with roasted root vegetables with dukkah (future post and recipe) or Tunisian-style curried vegetables. A Provence rosé or a spicy zinfandel would pair well with this dish.
Harissa, a favorite condiment in North African cuisine, gives this simple roasted chicken a fiery and flavorful kick!
30 minPrep Time
30 minCook Time
1 hrTotal Time
- 6 guajillo chiles
- 6 NM chiles (I like "hot")
- 1 tsp. each - cumin seed and coriander seed,
- 1/2 tsp. caraway seed
- a handful of fresh mint leaves, chopped (about 1 tbsp. finely chopped)
- 2 tsp. minced garlic (or to your taste - I like a lot!)
- 1 lemon, zest and juice
- 1 1/2 tsp. sea salt
- 1/2 cup olive oil (approximately; divided use)
- 8 chicken thighs, skin removed
- 1 tbsp. olive oil or vegetable oil
- salt and pepper
- 1/2 cup yogurt
- 1 tbsp. finely chopped fresh mint
- 1/4-1/2 tsp. sea salt (to taste)
Place dried chiles into a heat-proof bowl. Cover with boiling water, place a plate over top, and allow to steep (soften) for about 30 minutes. Remove stems and seeds. Cut into pieces and place in the bowl of a food processor or personal blender.
While chiles soften, toast the cumin, coriander, and caraway seed in a dry pan. Be careful not to burn. I am fairly generous with the spices as I love these flavors.
When spices are toasted, grind in a spice grinder. Add to the processor.
Add the chopped mint leaves, garlic, zest and juice of the lemon, and salt to the processor.
Add about 1/4 cup olive oil. Pulse until a smooth paste is formed. Taste for seasoning, and add more salt if needed. Mixture should be a little thicker than catsup. Add additional olive oil if necessary.
If you prefer a super smooth paste, press through a strainer using a flexible spatula.
Store harissa paste in a jar with about 1/2" of olive oil over top. It will keep up to 3 weeks in the refrigerator.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees (350 degrees on convection roast)
To a heavy saute pan, add a drizzle of olive oil or vegetable oil. Salt and pepper both sides of chicken pieces. Get the pan really hot, and add chicken pieces. Keep heat on medium high. Cook until chicken is seared and nicely browned.
Spread a layer of harissa on the bottom of an ovenproof casserole or pan. The cast iron griddle in the photo is ideal. Add the chicken pieces. Spread a bit of harissa on each piece. Place in preheated oven. Cook 20-30 minutes until cooked through. Watch carefully as harissa will begin to burn if left too long.
Combine yogurt, chopped fresh mint and salt in a prep bowl.
Top each chicken thigh with a dollop of yogurt.
Harissa paste may be stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks, and much longer in the freezer.
You can vary the heat level of of your paste by what varieties of chiles you use. If you really don't like the heat, use mild dried chile varieties, and add a roasted red bell pepper.
If you want a very smooth paste, press the mixture through a strainer.
I like to serve this with roasted vegetables and dukkah (recipe will be posted soon) or Tunisian curried vegetables. It would be great with couscous and a simple salad!