harissa – hotness in a jar
Last year I was lucky enough to take a trip to the Top End of Oz with my good makes the lovely Missy Helgs and Missy Margot. A few days before we flew into Darwin my travelling companions attended a Sunday night Russian wedding in Melbourne. After the requisite toasting and vodka shots the girls hit the dance floor and were having a fine old time.
They noticed a couple having a particularly good boogie; an older gentleman and his saucily dressed younger wife. And as it turned out their attention did not go unnoticed. A little while later the gent in question, a dentist by trade, turned to my mates with a twinkle in his eye. Then with both index fingers pointing at his beloved, pretend-pistol-shooting-style said:
‘Girls, she’s hot. HOT HOT HOT.’
Finger pistols punctuating the air for emphasis. Well this just cracked everyone up and of course it stuck.
Over the course of our NT road trip, there was plenty of dodgy dance floor action (imagine an ABBA cover band at the Darwin Cup Gala Ball) and way too much hot-hot-hotting. So now whenever hear the word hot, regardless of the context, my mind adds in the repeats and I think of that trip and well, I just have to smile.
Another hot thing that makes me smile is the fiery sauce from Morocco, known as harissa. My first ever experience with harissa is still burned onto my mind and holds the record for the hottest dish I have ever cooked or eaten. To be fair there were a few incidents with habaneros in Mexico and a recent encounter with an authentic Szechwan hot pot that did come close but the aptly named fiery harissa chicken is still the one.
It was back in the mid 90s and I was just developing a love for North African food. In the fare exchange section of Australian Gourmet Traveller there was a recipe for fiery harissa chicken with spiced couscous and yoghurt dressing from the chef at the Vasse Felix winery restaurant in the gorgeous Margaret River in Western Australia. I was cooking a leisurely dinner for my then boyfriend and his flatmate in their dodgy flat whose only redeeming feature was the absolute beachfront views of Maroubra.
Now Nick and Craig were both subscribers to the hotter-is-better school of spicy food appreciation so it seemed like the perfect dish. I did balk a little at the call for 75 birdseye chillies (also known as scuds for the obvious reason) but decided to risk it. Half way through the deseeding process the skin under my fingernails started to burn. I was getting a little tired of the whole thing so took the dare devil approach and dumped the rest of the chillies into the blender seeds and all and made precautionary plans to double the yoghurt dressing.
As I pulled the inferno encrusted chicken breasts from the oven my eyes felt like they were on fire just from the fumes but I decided to press on and served up regardless. I think I did give some kind of warning before we tucked in but let me tell you. I’ve never seen three people devour a 1kg tub of yoghurt so quickly and keep looking for more. With tears in their eyes, between large swigs of water (we were out of yoghurt and milk by that stage) the boys pronounced it one of the best meals ever and a legend was bornâ€¦all good things.
Potato & Artichoke Salad with Harissa Dressing
Adapted from casa moro – the second cookbook by Sam & Sam Clarke.
If you find yourself outside artichoke season, do not despair. While I haven’t tried it I’m sure bottled artichoke hearts would work a treat or if you’re not that keen on artichokes just sub in extra potatoes. This is the perfect thing to serve with BBQ squid or if you’re in a more meaty mood chop up a couple of chorizo or other spicy sausages, fry them up and toss them through. Or better yet, combine squid and chorizo on skewers like in the recipe here and BBQ away.
One of the things I like about this salad is the artichoke preparation method. Rather than fiddling around with lemon juice and being worried about your cut surfaces oxidizing, you just bung your whole artichokes in a pot of simmering water and when they’re tender drain and then remove the inedible bits without any pressure. All good.
Ever since my discovery of baked potato salads last summer I’ve pretty much given up on the whole boiling thing but feel free to simmer your spuds until tender if you don’t have access to an oven. The key thing is that you dress your potatoes while they’re still warm so they soak up as much of the fiery flavour as possible.
600g kipfler potatoes, scrubbed
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 baby or 3 large artichokes
1/2 bunch mint, leaves picked
for the dressing:
4 tablespoons harissa, or to taste
4 tablespoons lemon juice
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Preheat oven to 220C. Slice potatoes into thick rounds then toss in oil and season well. Place in a roasting pan and bake, stirring periodically until the spuds are golden and crispy and cooked through, approx 50 minutes.
Meanwhile for the artichokes, bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Add the artichokes and simmer until tender. Drain and allow to cool then remove the tough outer leaves. Trim the tops and bottoms and halve if using small artichokes or quarter if using large and remove the furry choke bits with a teaspoon.
Combine dressing ingredients and season well. Toss through hot potatoes and the artichokes. When ready to serve toss through mint leaves and you’re good to go.
No harissa? See the best harissa substitutes here.