Our focus during the tapas entries was the fusion cuisine created a half-millennium ago along the western shores of the Mediterranean by the introduction of New World vegetables into indigenous European and Arabic food ways. This cooking revolution, spurred on by the introduction of new crop plants, was nowhere more profound than in the Maghreb along the Mediterranean south shore where chili peppers were immediately and enthusiastically adopted.
Harissa – often referred to as the ketchup of Tunisia – is an excellent case in point. The name harissa comes from an Arabic word meaning to pound, and as you’ll see this makes sense given that we use a mortar and pestle to pound together chiles, garlic, various spices, salt, and olive oil to make a highly seasoned paste served along side of most meals in the region. Given that red pepper paste is the essential base ingredient for harissa, and that nothing like this was present in the region before the voyages of Columbus, this most popular condiment simply did not exist until 500 years ago.
While there is nothing like harissa in the pre-Columbian foods of the Maghreb, the olive oil-garlic-salt paste into which is mixed red pepper paste and ground spices does extend back to at least Roman times. This paste is the predecessor of aioli, the garlic-flavored mayonnaise of Provence and Catalonia. The egg-free emulsion used here as our harissa base is still considered by many in Spain as the ‘true’ aioli. The following recipe makes about 2 cups.
6 oz medium-hot New Mexico chili, ground
¾ cup water
1 tablespoon coriander seed
1 tablespoon caraway seed
1 tablespoon cumin seed
½ cup garlic, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon salt
1/3 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon dried spearmint
Mix together ground chili and water. If paste is stiff, add in more water until it is of medium-thickness. Let sit for 30 minutes.
Place coriander, caraway, and cumin seed into a hot skillet and shake constantly until steam begins to come off the seeds (see instructions for this process in the Balti Garam Masala recipe). Remove from heat and let cool. Place in spice grinder and process until finely ground. Set aside.
Place garlic and salt in a mortar and grind with a pestle until a rough paste is formed. Gradually add in the olive oil, grinding to make a thick, smooth paste.
Place garlic paste into a bowl along with the chili paste, roasted ground spices, and dry spearmint. Mix together, adding more olive oil as necessary to make a medium-thick paste. Place into a 1-pint jar, cap, and keep refrigerated.
We have often been disappointed with vegetarian chilies as they usually do not have the depth of flavor or complexity to compete with meat versions. In fact, they usually seemed little more than the tomato-bean soups that pass as 'chili' in the Upper Midwest. Jeff knew there must be a way to make a vegetarian version that could stand up. Starting from a winning recipe from the Terlingua International Championship Chili Cookoff that called for four pounds of meat (and no beans), the following vegetarian version took years to perfect. Success was eventually achieved by adding in a number of Mediterranean ingredients such as basil, thyme, balsamic vinegar, and a rich olive oil into the mix. In the end it unintentionally became a distant southwestern cousin of ratatouille. But, the end result does really taste like a ‘bowl of red’; in fact, this version won a chili cookoff in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, even though it was competing with regular meat chili. Note that this recipe makes 2 gallons; we usually put up half or more for later enjoyment.
2 lbs dry black beans
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large eggplant, cut into ¾” dice
4 carrots, cut into ¼” dice
4 celery stalks, chopped
4 cups onion, chopped
3 leeks, cleaned, cut into 3” sections and shredded
6 cloves garlic, chopped
2 green bell peppers, seeded and chopped
1 habenaro chili, seeded and finely chopped
3 medium zucchini, chopped
4 cups of tomato, seeded and chopped
2 cups tomato sauce
12 oz. tomato paste
½ cup chili powder
3 bay leaves, crumbled
2 tablespoons vegetarian soup base
2 tablespoons dry basil
1 tablespoon cumin, ground
1 tablespoon Mexican oregano
1 tablespoon Caribbean hot sauce
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dry rosemary leaves, crumbled
1 teaspoon dry thyme leaves
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon cayenne
2 tablespoons honey
¼ cup lemon juice
2 cups beer (a Nut Brown Ale works wonderfully)
Wash and pick over beans, removing any dirt clods, stones, or other foreign material. Cover with water and let soak overnight. Drain, cover again with water, and heat to boiling. Simmer for at least an hour or until tender. Drain and set aside.
Over high heat and in a heavy soup pot, bring olive oil up in temperature until almost smoking. Add in the eggplant. Sauté until it begins to soften and release the olive oil that it initially absorbed. Now add in the carrots and celery and sauté for another 3 minutes. Then add in the onion, leeks, and garlic and sauté for another 4 minutes. Next add in the bell pepper, habanero and zucchini and sauté until all the vegetables are tender – another 5-10 minutes.
Turn heat down to medium and add in tomatoes, tomato sauce, and tomato paste. Then add in the remaining spices. Last, add in the honey, lemon juice, beer, and reserved black beans. As this mixture will be quite thick, add in water (no more than 4 cups) to dilute to the desired consistency.
Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer uncovered for at least 2 hours to allow the flavors to meld. This chili will taste even better the second day.
We usually can the chili. If you plan to do this, you can skip the 2 hour simmer and simply fill jars with the diluted sauté. Remember that this is a low acid food and will require pressure canning for at least 90 minutes at 10-15 pounds of pressure depending upon elevation. Check with your local extension office to determine the correct pressure and cooking time for your area.
Needless to say this recipe makes full use of your late summer garden. If you can, please track down Mexican oregano at your local Hispanic market. It has a different flavor profile from typical Italian/Greek oregano, and works better with Tex-Mex dishes. And last, do try and locate an authentic Caribbean hot sauce made with Scotch Bonnet peppers, such as Matouk's.