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Let me teach you how to make harissa, and I’ll teach you how to cook.

For those unfamiliar with this super condiment, harissa is a north African chile paste that blends rehydrated peppers and tomatoes with garlic and spices. I described it in an earlierpost as ketchup’s sophisticated older brother. I absolutely love this stuff. Ever since I started making it, I’ve found it fits many applications: as a spicy sauce for pasta, a zesty spread for sandwiches, and a tangy crust for grilled or broiled meats.

The trick with what I’m about to show you is that there is no recipe, just a list of ingredients. Now don’t panic. This is where the “teach you how to cook” part comes in. There’s really no way to mess this up, and even the many times I’ve made it for myself, each version is slightly different from the last. This is ok! This is not a delicate souffle where there needs to be a perfect balance of chemicals or precisely measured parts to get it right. I’ve experimented with many different types of peppers (anchos, chipotles, epilettes) and I encourage you to do the same. Love garlic? Add as many cloves as you can stand. Hate coriander? Don’t even put it in.

Learning how to cook is learning to trust your senses. It’s easy to follow a recipe, but real culinary prowess comes from being able to take ingredients and taste them in your mind before you taste them on your tongue. This all starts with honing the skill of being able to taste as you go to see what you might need more of or less of. Then when you cook and eat at home more regularly, you start to know that pureed peppers will play well with smoked paprika and caraway seeds without needing to read it from a book.

I’ve witnessed a lot of cooks who go from start to finish in a recipe without tasting anything along the way. This to me seems like building a house blindfolded. You’re following the plan, but not checking to see if it’s working along the way.

So take a few deep breaths and dive in. There could not be a more literal opportunity for you to trust your gut.

D$ notes: As promised, no recipe. I give you some general amounts as I used them, but I strongly encourage you to choose your own path. Add in or take away as you see fit. And if all this freedom gets to be too suffocating, you can always cheat and look up a recipe online. (punk).


  • A quart container of dried chiles (about 4oz). A single type or mixed types. I usually go for smokier ones like anchos, but if you want more spice don’t be afraid to step it up with some arbols. Put them in a bowl covered with boiling water and let em soak for about half an hour. Then de‐stem and de‐seed them before adding them to your food processor.
  • Sundried tomatoes (dry or in oil it doesn’t matter)
  • About a dozen cloves of garlic (do yourself a favor and buy them peeled and spare yourself the tedium)
  • Corriander (I prefer to grind my own, but you can get the ground stuff if it’s easier, start with a teaspoon and add from there)
  • Carraway (see above)
  • Paprika (I use the smoked stuff here)
  • Olive oil (to texture)
  • Salt (to taste)


    1. Put all the dry ingredients in a food processor and whir em up.
    2. While the processor is running, drizzle in the olive oil. You want to get it to be a nice wet paste. Then close your eyes and give it a try. Can you taste every ingredient you put in? If not, add whatever you can’t taste until you can. Think of it like a chord in music, every note combining to make a beautiful harmony. Then taste again and again til you’ve got it where you want it.

Look at that. You just cooked something.

Reminder: The ingredients in a recipe determine if it should be eaten every day, some days, or on special occasions. It's up to you and you doctor to determine what can be part of a healthy diet for you and any special needs you may have.

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Photo by Flicker user mollycakes / CC BY-NC 2.0

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