Oct 26, 2010

The Call of the Wild in a Harissa Chicken Casserole

I first had a taste of this red and wild spice rub (paste), Harissa, at a French creperie in a farmer's market in southern California. I was living in San Diego as a visiting graduate student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Now, San Diego is a long haul from Tunisia, and you can imagine the many stopovers that Harissa may have spent at European ports and cities before making its way across the pond, through street food stands of New York and neighborhood joints of Los Angeles, before I came across it in San Diego.
No wonder the Harissa that I 'discovered' in that French creperie in the farmer’s market in southern California, is a far cry from the bottle of hot peppers dipped in olive oil that is a primary condiment with any meal in Tunisia.
Here, of course, Harissa is used as a sauce on pizza, spread on a sub, and all things of our world far removed from staples of Tunisia and of Africa- a place we all emerged from a very long time ago; a call of that wild still remains in all of us. Buried. But not gone. And sometimes there is food that teases out that instinct. Harissa is one such. Red peppers, oil, and raw spices all mixed together in a wonderfully sensual way that teases your palette till you give.
Yes, it is true that Harissa has seen modification; it has accommodated many versions of change. But what is wonderful about Harissa is that, no matter where you buy it from--the villages of Tunisia or the flea market in Morocco or from some Parisian spice market or the international aisle in a London supermarket or from right here, in Trader's Joe or the World Market in Boulder--a dollop of Harissa will all will always remind you of drum beats, red dusts, festive flags and piercing eyes that look at you straight through the wonderfully dangerous looking masks.  And you instinctively know 'Yes it is from Africa'. And you get a feel of that raw pull of spices and meat stewed over open heat that is to be had with friends and family dodging spirits that are frightening and yet irresistible in their antiquity.
Harissa...from the continent, where cheetahs still roam and festive drums beat. You don't want to miss that during this festive time.


1.5-2 pounds of chicken. Bone in with some skin is best. You can also probably get away with the dark meat of the thigh and drumsticks. But do not rely on breast meet, please. Also, I highly recommend good quality farm raised chicken. Organic. The surest way to kill this recipe is by compromising on the chicken

Harissa: You can make some, and you may want some modifications. Just don’t kill the fiery spirit of this spice blend
1 tbsp whole cumin
2 tbsp of whole coriander
1 tbsp of whole fennel
Roast the whole spices for few minutes and grind together. You can also simply use powdered versions of the spices or even more simply, get some from your grocer. But for awesome flavor, you can roast the whole spices and grind it in a coffee grinder

3-4 cloves of garlic
1/4 cup of good quality tomato paste
3 tbsp of olive oil (I used Tunisian as well as Californian versions. They all go well here)

Salt and black pepper to taste

The simplicity of this recipe rocks!
Puree garlic, tomato paste and olive oil with the Harissa paste (that you hopefully made?) together in a food processor to make a marinade. Place chicken in an oven –friendly bowl; add the marinade; mix well and let it sit on the counter for 30 minutes or in the refrigerator for a couple of hours to overnight. The longer you marinate the better it is of course. Now you have three possible courses of actions
1. You can grill the chicken: Awesome flavors develop and serve it with pita and cucumbers. Perfect for early autumn dinner or the patio.
2. You can cook the slow cook on stove top: Place the chicken and every bit of marinade you can save and some water (half a cup) in a Dutch oven (or any stovetop safe pot really), turn up the stove to 6 (no high heat), do not cover, but stir gently from time to time. Let the heat work its magic for about 60-90 minutes  (depending on your stove and the meat it could take longer). This version renders a stew-like version. Great with some bread and wine.

3. This is the easiest and the best way Preheat oven to 420 F. Takes about 15 minutes. Cover the bowl (I used a casserole; you could use Aluminum foil) and bake for 60 min at 420 F (you may need to adjust the temperature). This process helps the chicken become tender and mix with the marinade well. Uncover and cook at 450 F for another 5 min. For extra grill flavor, follow by broiling at high for 2 minutes. Watch the broil. Serve with some couscous or brown rice and bask in all the glory of the compliments you recieve :) 

As simple as that, and as compelling as that. A feast for the eyes and every other sense :)

Happy eating and healthy living!

Happy eating and healthy living!


Brownieville Girl said...

I have harissa in the fridge ... I'll have to try this!!

Sonia (Nasi Lemak Lover) said...

this is new to me, but it looks good!

girlichef said...

This sounds fantastic! I've been meaning to make my own Harissa...YUM! Thanks for the recipe :)

Terrianne, Call me Ree said...

Harissa sounds so flavorful and yummy. I bet your casserole filled the house with the most wonderful aroma and tasted DELICICOUS! =)

Jhonny walker said...


Glad you like the pull of the wild!! happy to have shared it with all of you :)

The Japanese Redneck said...

haven't used a couple of those spices.

Murasaki Shikibu said...

I've been curious about trying out Harissa so I'm glad you posted this. I never cease to be amazed at how spice cultures have developed amazing combinations of spices, and it's one of the pleasures in life to become acquainted with yet another winning combination. :)

Jhonny walker said...

@ Ramona: that's always an indication that time for trying out new :) :)

@ Murasaki: Can't agree more. Just can't!!!