Miso soup is a marvel. It’s made of seaweed and tuna that’s been dried and smoked over a smouldering fire on the shores of distant Japan. As with everything Japanese, it’s both simple and complicated. From an eGullet forum (is anyone else surprised eGullet and Chowhound still exist?) on dashi, the stock used to make miso soup:
“Ichiban Dashi, I understand, is the first brew of the bonito and the konbu. The Niban Dashi is the second brew.
But when do you use a first brew as opposed to a second brew dashi? For what dishes?
And for what dishes do you use pure konbu dashi or niboshi dashi? Are these things interchangeable at all?”
“Different recipes call for such variation in preparing this stock. Madhur Jaffrey lets the konbu reach a boil, then turns it off. Other recipes call for it to not boil, the bonito to sink..add cold water with bonito, simmer….some add carrots?”
You know things are confusing out there when one of the world’s foremost Indian cooking experts sticks her fingers into the miso soup bowl. It’s no wonder grocery aisles are chock-a-block with convenience foods: things half-prepared, shrunken and dehydrated, sealed in envelopes with concise instructions on the back. Add boiling water; stir. Add tofu if desired.
In our quest for realness, for bragging rights, we’re sure these convenience foods are modern inventions to be sniffed at, but like most things we think we know we’re likely wrong.
Take harissa. There’s evidence of the word dating back to the 13th century, when it’s form was a compound paste of meat, fat, and wheat. This eventually gave way to another paste of the same name featuring spices, oil, and dried peppers after the widespread cultivation of chilies, a new-world import to the Mahgreb in the late 16th century. It’s likely this change took place over the course of hundreds of years rather than overnight but what is certain is that harissa is a culinary short-cut of the same sort described above, only with historical credibilty. Having a jar on hand makes a whole bunch of seriously fucking delicious things possible and dispenses with the need for a battery of spice jars in favour of a single jar containing the souk.
It’s easy enough to grab a tube from your grocer but homemade is almost always better – I hate to bend your brain like this, but you should go through the trouble of making this convenience food from scratch. The version I give you today has a handful of dried rose petals in the mix, but I reserve the right to tell you later about the deep, complicated, lip-biting monster I currently have in the fridge door.
Food writer Diana Henry uses fresh chilies in her harissa and it’s fruitiness is a welcome addition to the sort of paste you’ll want to eat by the spoonful. While some harissa is wicked, mysterious and full of gravity, her version is light and limber, going places those more profound versions would seem out of place. I prefer mine somewhere between those two poles: a little smoky, a little floral, a little fruity, and just hot enough.
- 5 dried guadjillo chilies
- 1 dried ancho chili
- 1 tbsp (15 mL) caraway seed
- 2 tsp (10 mL) coriander seed
- 2 tsp (10 m) cumin seeds
- ¼ cup (60 mL) dried culinary rose petals (optional)
- 8 cloves garlic, peeled
- ½ tsp (2 mL) ground cardamom
- ¾ tsp (4 mL) salt
- 2 fresh cayenne or red serrano chilies, stemmed
- 2 tbsp (45 mL) lemon juice
- ¼ cup (60 mL) olive oil, plus extra for topping finished harissa
- Remove the stems from the dried chilies and shake to dislodge as many seeds as possible; discard seeds and place chilies in a heat-proof bowl. Pour boiling water over and let stand for 30-45 minutes.
- Meanwhile, combine caraway, coriander, and cumin in a small skillet. Toast over medium low heat for 4-5 minutes, shaking the pan from time to time, until a faint crackling can be heard, mixture is aromatic, and seeds just begin to smoke. Remove from heat; let cool. Using a mortar and pestle (or spice grinder), grind spices.
- Drain dried chilies and coarsely chop. Remove seeds from fresh chilies to temper heat if desired; roughly chop and add both dried and fresh chilies to a food processor along with the toasted spice mixture, rose petals if using, garlic, cardamom, salt, lemon juice and ¼ cup olive oil. Process to a fine paste, scraping down sides as necessary. Turn out into a glass jar; top with a small amount of additional olive oil, cover and refrigerate for as long as two weeks.
- Spread a thin layer of lebneh on a plate, top with dollops of harissa, drizzle with olive oil, and serve with flatbread
- Brush a 50-50 mixture of olive oil and harissa on thick cut slices of eggplant, season with salt and pepper. Grill until golden and tender.
- Combine 1 large chopped roasted red pepper with ¼ cup (60 mL) harissa and serve with bread to scoop it up
- Serve a dollop beside simply roasted chicken or lamb chops
- Spread on a fried egg and merguez sandwich
- Spread a very thin layer on your avocado toast instead of using dried chili flake
- Make spicy devilled eggs by combining the yolks with mayo & harissa to taste