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Hot Topic: Harissa and Berbere Paste


I think it was the mix of vibrant sun and biting wind this past weekend that inspired me to finally do something constructive with the bag of dried hot peppers sitting in my pantry. A friend had shared her beautiful stash with me, along with a family recipe for a fantastic-sounding chili; hopefully she won’t mind the project detour I ultimately took with her ingredients.

In truth, I had been contemplating making berbere paste for years–ever since discovering a recipe for it in the pages of the World Food Cafe cookbook in 2002. It seemed so exotic! But then I’d read the long list of ingredients and find myself getting sleepy before even making it into the kitchen. So, as with overly complicated knitting projects and 1,000 piece picture puzzles, it got pushed to the back of the closet, an idea for some rainy day down the line.


A crisp, sunny day offers the perfect opportunity to visit my favorite Punjab Market in Waverly and stock up on spices.

Then a funny thing happened. I bought a small container of a spicy lentil stew from the Ethiopian stall at the Waverly Market and found my motivation: I was going to make a big pot of Yemisir Kik Wot (more on that later).

In truth, making the berbere paste is not actually difficult. It’s just a long list of spices that must be measured and toasted and ground, mixed with a paste of vinegar, onion, ginger, and garlic. After all that, you net a baby food jar’s worth of product–one that you may find yourself opening for no reason other than to breathe in its amazing aromas and dreaming of as you sleep at night.

Berbere Paste
from the World Food Cafe cookbook

2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1/2 inch piece of ginger, minced
3 green onions, sliced
1 T cider vinegar
1/2 tsp. peppercorns
1/2 tsp. cardamom seeds
1/2 tsp. coriander seeds
1/2 tsp. fenugreek seeds
1 tsp. cumin seeds
4 cloves
8 dried red chili peppers
4 tsp. ground sweet paprika
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground allspice
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg

Measure whole spices into a bowl. Heat a dry skillet and toast them until lightly browned and fragrant. Toss frequently and take care not to burn them. Next, grind the whole spices and dried peppers finely (I use a cheap electric coffee grinder that I reserve just for this purpose). Measure the powdered spices into the mixture as well. Set aside.

Place the garlic, ginger, onions, and vinegar in the bowl of a food processor (since there is so little to mix, after some trial and error, I had much better luck using the small processor that came with my immersion blender as opposed to my powerhouse Cuisinart). Process into a paste, then add all the ground spices and continue mixing till well combined. Pack into a small glass jar with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate until needed.

one pot

Since I had barely dented my Ziploc bag full of dried peppers and I already had every spice I own out on the counter, I decided to just keep going and try my hand at making a batch of Harissa while I was at it (plus, there was a soup using it that I’d just read about and wanted to try…convenient!). After all that berbere paste activity, this one seemed sinfully low-effort.

also from the World Food Cafe cookbook

2 oz. dried hot red chilies
2 T cumin seeds
3 T coriander seeds
4 garlic cloves
1 tsp. salt
5 T olive oil

Remove any stems or seeds from dried chilies and soak the peppers in warm water for about an hour.

Meanwhile, measure whole spices into a bowl. Heat a dry skillet and toast them until lightly browned and fragrant. Toss frequently and take care not to burn them. Grind the whole spices finely and set aside.

Once the peppers have softened, drain and place in the bowl of a food processor. Add ground spices, garlic, and salt, and run processor until peppers break down and a paste begins to form (I had to stop and scrape down the bowl repeatedly, and even then only got half way there).

spice row

Next, with the processor running, slowly drizzle in the oil. This is where my harissa finally came together, much like a pesto. Keep processing until smooth. Pack into a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate until needed. Works as a condiment and in soups and stews (more on that later, as well).

hot clean

A Peck of Pickled Peppers


Okay, not a peck, just a jar. Still, when Brian stripped down our one and only jalapeño plant and laid out all those bright green peppers on the kitchen counter, I was a little stumped. I had flashbacks to when my dad would proudly arrive in the kitchen carrying four or five baseball bat-sized zucchinis that had been hiding in our backyard garden. My mother would take one look at him and his harvest and order them all back outside. She wanted nothing to do with any of it. When Brian said he was looking forward to seeing what I was going to do with so many jalapeños, I was tempted to follow her example.

These peppers had been on the hot side of their variety (at least when compared with the half-rotting ones I tend to find in grocery stores), which was lovely when the harvest was coming in only a few at a time. This end-of-the-season bumper crop, however, was a little harder to wrap my mind around. We were just on our way out of town, so I pushed them all into a bag and hid them in the crisper drawer–a hot problem for another day.

Back home after a week on the road, the peppers demanded my attention. Preservation seemed the name of the game at this point, but frozen peppers never seem to work out for me (their texture is ruined by the freezing process, and I tend to forget to use them in situations where that might not matter). Having just finished the last of six jars of pickled green beans, however, this seemed a method our family was capable of putting to good use.

In addition, this week’s new-to-my-kitchen vegetable is the daikon. One of my favorite Waverly farmers was selling off bunches of them for a buck, so it seemed I had little to lose on the investment. Raw salads and slaws being low on my list as we cruise into the cooler fall temperatures, I decided pickling these was a good storage plan as well.

Pickled Jalapeño Peppers
from The Purple Foodie

330 g sliced jalapeños (I was a little shy on this weight once I’d sorted out a few bad specimens, so I just sliced and filled a sterilized pint jar and called it enough snacking heat for the household)
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup water
1 T peppercorns
2 bay leaves
3 cloves of garlic, lightly crushed
2 T kosher salt
1 T sugar

Wash and slice the jalapeños–carefully. Wear gloves and mind what you touch. I have had pepper-burned hands and do not recommend it (though if you do find yourself injured, pushing your fingers into some yogurt seems to help). Pack the pile of peppers (sorry, couldn’t help myself) into a sterilized jar or jars, as best suits your needs.

The Purple Foodie passes on a pickling tip in her recipe that she learned from Michael Ruhlman’s blog for determining how much liquid you’ll need in advance: once you pack the vegetables into the jar, cover with water. Pour it back off into a measuring cup. Discard half the water and replace the missing volume with your chosen vinegar for a perfectly measured 50/50 mix.

Once you have determined the amount of liquid you will need, add that and the remaining ingredients to a pan and simmer for 5 minutes. Pour this mixture back over the peppers, screw on the lids, and refrigerate for a few days (or as long as you can wait). This batch should keep a couple of months.

Pickled Daikon
variation on the Momofuku Vinegar Pickle base recipe

There are many cooks on the internet who are preparing a carrot/daikon pickle for banh mi sandwiches. That wasn’t really what I was after, so I decided to start with a basic rice wine pickle recipe and add my own spices.

1 bunch daikon, washed, peeled, and cut into thin sticks to fit your jar (I used a pint, and these proportions worked well.)
1 cup boiling water
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
3 T sugar
1 T kosher salt
1 tsp. vindaloo seasoning or spices of your choice

Pack the prepared daikon sticks into a sterilized pint jar. Combine the remaining ingredients and pour this mixture over the daikon, screw on the lid, and let sit in the refrigerator for a few days before using.

Totally Impractical


Yesterday, I bought a whole watermelon at the market.

This would not have been such an issue if I had not already purchased two full bags of produce. Or if I wasn’t counting on the bus to get me home. But these things happen. Dear Mr. Bus Driver who waited for me to sprint-waddle over to the stop before taking off, even though you were already pulling back out into traffic when you noticed me: I hope a cool breeze follows you all summer long for your kindness.

So, as I said, I made some purchases, got myself home, then broke training and cranked my air conditioner while I contemplated what to make. In the end, most of my construction work ended up in jars. More ginger beer, more yogurt, more watermelon juice (mixing this with seltzer is my new favorite drink, and I’m fully stocked up now). The piles and piles of baby cucumbers at the market demanded a batch of sweet pickles and the tomatillos, a cubanelle, and some of the super-hot garden peppers still hanging out in the freezer from last season went into a simple and lovely roasted tomatillo salsa verde. Wanting to put that condiment to use immediately, I stuffed the remaining cubanelles with rice, a couple of the tomatoes, and (avert your eyes) a meat substitution product (for the health and happiness of the husband).

Once the oven was on to bake the stuffed peppers, I decided I might as well make use of the already-steamy kitchen to do up the fairytale eggplants as well. Those were all sliced in half, dropped into a hot chef pan with a bit of water, and then finished with this awesome sauce of rice vinegar, sesame oil, soy sauce, sake, ginger, garlic, and a pinch of sugar and cornstarch. Six minutes from raw to such a tasty side dish: in this kitchen, you could even call that practical.