My apartment has a gas stove. It’s an elderly beast, with a rust-pocked metal surface and dials straight out of the 1980’s. The burner covers aren’t anchored to the surface at all, so they slide around, propping pots at rakish angles and sometimes slipping completely off a lit burner. The cooktop doesn’t light reliably, and sometimes it doesn’t even try to; once or twice, in the middle of a cooking project, it’s decided that it’s had enough, and tucked away the little blue flames so quietly that I didn’t notice. But still, I forgive it, because when it’s in the mood to cooperate, that stove can roast a mean red pepper.
Nevermind that my apartment smells like burning for two days afterward. Roasting peppers is just too much fun when you have a gas stove. I love setting the pepper at an angle over the ring of flame, watching the skin slowly blacken and flake up into ember-edged bits. I love the little jolt I get whenever an ember shakes loose from the skin and skates across the stovetop. And I love the ending ritual, once all the sides have been seared: steaming the pepper, then crumbling the blackened bits off to reveal supple red flesh underneath. Broiling and grilling will get the job done on a pepper, but for sheer primal MAN MAKE FIRE satisfaction, there’s nothing like an open flame.
The last time I roasted a red pepper, I had to borrow a match and a candle from another tenant just to light the stove. But it was worth it, because at the end of it all, I had a batch of homemade harissa. I first discovered this stuff in Israel, drizzled into a falafel sandwich: a thick orange-red hot sauce, bulked out with roasted pepper and fragrant with garlic and spices. You can buy it in jars, fiery and pungent, but I was surprised by how different my homemade version tasted: less aggressive, sweeter and lighter, unmistakably roasted, with spices lingering in the background rather than charging the stage. In the week since I’ve made it, I’ve already used it in place of salsa on huevos rancheros, and stirred it into a batch of minty tomato sauce for poaching eggs. At this rate, I’ll be lucky if it lasts another week.
One thing to note: harissa recipes vary, but most agree that it should be aggressively spicy. Perhaps it’s just my pepper-blitzed taste buds, but the recipe I adapted was not nearly spicy enough for my tastes. This version is a sweet-smoky red pepper paste, almost like a salsa–but a hot sauce, it ain’t. Next time I think I’ll swap a habanero for the Fresno chiles–but me, I like a fair amount of heat. Your mileage will almost certainly vary.
Harissa (makes about 1 cup)
1 medium red bell pepper
1/4 tsp whole cumin seeds
1/4 tsp whole coriander seeds
1/4 tsp whole caraway seeds
1/4 tsp whole fennel seeds
1 tbsp olive oil
1 small red onion, diced
2 medium Fresno chiles (red jalapenos), seeded and diced
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1/4 tsp dried mint
1 tbsp tomato paste
2 tbsp lemon juice (about 1 lemon’s worth)
1 tsp celery salt, or to taste
Extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling
Roast the pepper over a gas burner, under the broiler, or on a hot grill, turning every minute or two, until the entire surface of the pepper is blackened. Transfer to a heatproof bowl and cover with a tight-fitting lid or a piece of plastic wrap. Let the pepper sit and steam for about 10 minutes, or until cool enough to handle.
Meanwhile, place a medium skillet (not nonstick) over medium heat. Add cumin, coriander, caraway, and fennel seeds, and toast for 2-3 minutes, or until fragrant. Remove from the heat and grind the spice mixture with a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Set aside.
Add olive oil to the skillet and heat until shimmering. Add onion and chiles and saute, stirring frequently, for 5-6 minutes, or until the onion is translucent. Add garlic and continue to cook for another 1-2 minutes, or until the onion is golden. Set aside to cool.
Peel the skin off the bell pepper. Remove the stem, then pull the pepper apart and scrape away the seeds and inner membranes. Dice the pepper, and transfer to the bowl of a food processor. Add the ground spice mixture, sauteed onion-chile-garlic mixture, dried mint, tomato paste, lemon juice, and celery salt. Process until a smooth paste forms. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed.
To store the harissa, transfer it to an airtight container and drizzle a thin layer of olive oil on top. As you use the harissa, scoop off the olive oil on top and mix it into the portion you’re using, then pour a new layer of oil on top of the remaining sauce. Stored this way, the harissa will keep in the fridge for up to 2 months, getting better and better with time.