Harissa (Recipe: braised fish, Tunisian style)
The chile peppers on the can gave it away.
Before I even knew what harissa was, I knew it was hot.
Head-sweating, hair-tingling, tongue-numbing, nose-dripping hot.
And I love hot.
Harissa, one of the fundamental condiments of Tunisian and Algerian cuisine, is a blazing hot pepper paste that usually includes chile peppers, coriander, cumin, caraway and garlic. It somewhat resembles Indonesian sambal oelek, which makes a good substitute. Especially popular in North Africa, where it's used as both spice and condiment, harissa — like ketchup, which seems to go with all things American — kicks up couscous, fish, lamb stews, chicken, and bean dishes.
If you can't find harissa in your market, buy it online, or make your own. (Here's a Jordanian version to make at home.) Be sure to stick to small quantities; a little goes a long way, and you'll want to use it before it loses potency. With your own stash, try a couple of Tunisian recipes like chicken chorba or bean and chickpea stew. Or mix a teaspoon of harissa in two cups of Greek yogurt or creme fraiche to make a lively dipping sauce for vegetables.
Braised fish, Tunisian style
The spicy harissa really compliments the bland flavor of the white fish. Serves 4.
1-1/2 lb cod, scrod, haddock or other thick white fish fillets, cut into four serving pieces
1 Tbsp harissa
2 tsp olive oil
1 large onion, sliced into rings
4 roasted tomato halves (with thyme and garlic), or sun-dried tomatoes in oil + 2 cloves sliced garlic
1 cup clam juice or white wine
Juice of half a lemon, or more to taste
Black pepper, to taste
2 Tbsp flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped, for garnish
Preheat oven to 375°F. Rub the fish all over with harissa, and set aside for 20 minutes. In a large ovenproof frying pan, heat the oil, and add the onion. Sauté briefly over medium heat until onions are just translucent. Add tomato, clam juice and lemon juice, and cook 3-4 minutes until the flavors combine. Remove from heat, and nestle the fish into the sauce, spooning a bit over the top of the fish. Cover with aluminum foil, and place in the oven for 10 minutes, or until fish is just cooked through (do not overcook). Remove pan from the oven and let sit, covered, for 2-3 minutes. Season with black pepper to taste, and top with parsley.