Make no mistake; I am from the Midwest. I was born into a culture of casseroles (or hot dish, depending on your exact location,) rife with of cans of condensed soup, a grind or two of black pepper being the closest thing to spice around. Wait, I phrased that incorrectly. No grinding. A pinch of pepper from a tin canister, already ground, neutering the ethereal bite of a freshly cracked peppercorn. This is not actually all a bad thing. There are still moments I desperately crave a tuna noodle casserole, one of the few possible ways you will ever see me eat fish. And a casserole is a quick way of getting hot dinner to your family. But this isn’t about casserole. It is about that pinch of pepper. It is about spice.
While my mother did expose me to a wider range of spices and flavors than the average Wisconsin kid had in the 80s, there was only so much she could do, given what was available at the time, at least in a mid-sized city in Wisconsin. A favorite joke in our house:
Q: How do you make Norwegian salsa?
A: Chop up a tomato.
It’s not that far from the truth. But as I grew older, I grew more entranced with the art of cooking, and while I definitely will occasionally go to my mother’s house and bust out the stash of egg noodles I know are stored in a 35-year old coffee can (we take recycling VERY seriously in our family, those containers last forever) and whip up a classic tuna noodle casserole, I now take great pleasure in spice. Not the spice that blows your head off. I can take a fair amount of heat in my spice, although my pride on how spicy of food I could take was dented a little when I befriended a few folks from India and China. When the person from India tells you they think it is too spicy, believe them. Trust me. But I digress.
Spice does not necessarily mean heat. Pull open my spice drawer and you will get assaulted with a thousand scents, only a few of which will actually make you tear up. I have a little marble mortar and pestle I bought well over a decade ago to grind them fresh by hand, and even though it can be a challenge, it is pretty much a given that freshly ground spices are always better. And one of the finer examples of it is harissa.
No, that is not the misspelling of an arch-villain of Rocky and Bullwinkle’s. It is actually a Tunisian condiment. I must say, the Tunisians are brilliant. It has a long list of ingredients, but it holds for a few weeks and is one of the finer things to keep around the house. Of course there are many a recipe for this delectable little paste, but in the end I like it with plenty of aromatic spice, flirting with the edge of heat without taking out your tastebuds in a wall of culinary flame. I am absolutely positive there are those in my family who would turn red and start sweating just looking at it sideways, but for the rest I can assure them that it is divine. The making of it is a sensual act, each ingredient releasing headily distinct scents as you prepare them, and you start to rack up ideas in your head of what to put the final product on. I once had a student from Egypt tell me that they use it for breakfast to top off a nice bit of bread or chickpea soup.
Dried ancho chiles release a sweet smoky scent, red bell peppers and jalapenos let loose a juicy edge of sweet. Cumin, caraway, and coriander seeds roast briefly in a pan, and the second you start to grind them in the mortar and pestle, the warm scent causes you to close your eyes as your mind flies away to a far away market that pretty much looks exactly like one in the market swordfight scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Salty fresh garlic, a clean fresh hail of mint, a touch of earthy sweet honey, and the magical final component of the food processor to bring it all together into a smoky sweet warm salty concoction with the slightest bitter edge of pepper, and just a touch of heat. Now that is a luscious bit of spice.
2 oz. dried ancho chiles (about 5-7 chiles, don’t worry about getting too many, they keep. And yes, they are actually pretty easy to find, especially if your grocery store has a “Hispanic” section)
3 jalapenos, halved and seeded
1 red bell pepper, halved and seeded
1 tsp. whole cumin seed
½ tsp. whole caraway seed
1 tsp. whole coriander seed (yes, you can use ground if you have it, but I beseech you to try whole. And go buy a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle. I’ll wait. Go ahead. No, you can’t use your coffee grinder, you need something just for spice. OK. Have you got it? OK. Good.we shall continue.)
2 serrano peppers, halved and seeded
2 Tbsp. chopped mint leaves
1 Tbsp. honey
generous pinch salt
extra virgin olive oil
Cut the tops off of all the ancho chiles and remove as many of the seeds and veins as you can. Place into a bowl and cover with boiling water for about 20 minutes.
While the anchos are bathing, place the jalapenos and bell pepper, skin side up, on a baking sheet covered in foil and place them directly under your broiler. Roast them until the skins get all black and bubbly, then remove to a dish and cover the dish with another plate for about 15 minutes. You guessed it, you are roasting the peppers. I used to put the peppers in a paper bag to steam, but putting them in a bowl with a plate on top works WAY better, and you don’t waste a bag.
While the peppers are roasting and/or steaming, toasted the cumin, caraway, and coriander in a small skillet. It only takes a minute or so. Watch them carefully, because they can burn pretty quickly. When you start to really smell them, they are done. Pour into your grinder or mortar and pestle and grind away until they are fairly fine. This is by far my favorite part, solely because of the smells that let fly.
Place the garlic, serranos, mint leaves, and spices into the bowl of a food processor. Drain the ancho chiles and add them to the bowl. When you are able, peel the skins off the bell pepper and jalapenos. Do NOT rinse them under water to get the skin off, you will remove the flavor. Place the skinned peppers in the food processor with the rest. Add in the honey on top, along with 1 Tbsp. of the olive oil. Give the food processor a few pulses just to break everything up, then just let ‘er rip for about 30 seconds. Pause to scrape down the sides of the bowl, then go for another 30 seconds, adding in another tablespoon of olive oil to help loosen it up. Decant into a nice glass jar for storage and float a little olive oil on the top, and store in the fridge for up to two weeks. I have heard that people will put this stuff on almost anything, almost a Sriracha-in-waiting. I actually think this is better.