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Harissa marries chiles, Mediterranean spices

Harissa is one of those flavors for which there is no substitute. So I didn’t bat an eyelash when my husband asked if we could make a harissa-spiced carrot salad with feta and mint. Sure. Sounds delicious, I said.

I just had to track down another tube of the North African chile paste since using up the last of one purchased a couple of years past at a local gourmet store. I figured in that span of time, this condiment would have become almost mainstream, available on specialty aisles of regular grocers.

But after fruitless searches at two stores, I had to content myself with a jar of the dry blended spice components: paprika, caraway, crushed red chile peppers, cayenne, coriander, cumin, garlic, peppermint and sea salt. Mix a tablespoon, the label stated, with 1 tablespoon water or olive oil to make a paste.

I still needed to combine that with red bell pepper and canned and sun-dried tomatoes to complete the salad recipe that was our end goal. After taking the time to roast, chop and blend those ingredients in a food processor, I wished I had just compounded the harissa blend from individual spices I already had on hand, rather than spending close to $5 on that little jar.

Here’s a recipe with instructions for doing just that, saving you the trouble of trying to track down harissa as a paste. I like the inclusion of fenugreek and ground cardamom in this one, courtesy of Tribune News Service. If you already have one on hand (the paste is available at Trader Joe’s), the “shortcut marinade” makes grilling the hardest part of preparing this chicken with a flavor profile to shake up your usual repertoire.

HARISSA: In a high-speed blender, combine 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil, 9 peeled garlic cloves, 1/2 cup fenugreek seeds, 3 tablespoons crushed red peppers, 1 tablespoon caraway seeds and 1 1/2 teaspoons each salt, ground cardamom and ground coriander. Blend until very smooth. Pour into a small jar. Pour olive oil over surface of sauce to cover it completely. Makes about 1 cup.

Harissa Seasoning Sauce and Marinade

2 medium-large red bell peppers

1 large lemon

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup ground mild, red New Mexico chile powder or gochugaru (or sweet paprika with 1/4 teaspoon cayenne)

3 tablespoons tomato paste

2 tablespoons plain Greek yogurt (optional)

3 to 5 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1/4 teaspoon ground caraway seeds

Put the bell peppers directly over a gas burner (or 6 inches from broiler element) and roast, turning often, until skin blisters and blackens on all sides, for about 10 minutes. Put peppers into a bowl; cover with a towel and let cool. Rub off blackened skins; discard core and seeds. Roughly chop peppers and put into a blender.

Use a rasp grater to zest the lemon into blender. Cut lemon in half; squeeze juice into blender. Add remaining ingredients. Process until mixture is very smooth.

Transfer to a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Sauce keeps, refrigerated, for at least 2 weeks. Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

Shortcut Harissa Marinade: Combine a 6.7-ounce jar harissa (such as Trader Joe’s Traditional Tunisian Harissa) with 1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt and 2 tablespoons each olive oil and tomato paste. Makes about 1 cup.

Harissa Grilled Chicken

1 1/2 cups maple, cherry or apple wood chips for grilling

3 to 4 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken parts such as thighs, breast halves, drumsticks, wings

1 cup harissa seasoning sauce and marinade (see above recipe)

Chopped fresh cilantro, chives or a combination

Put the wood chips in a bowl of water; let soak several hours or overnight.

Place the chicken pieces in a large bowl. Add the harissa seasoning sauce. Use clean hands to thoroughly coat all sides of chicken pieces. Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 2 hours or up to 24 hours.

Prepare a charcoal grill and let coals burn until they are at medium heat and covered in gray ash (an oven thermometer will register 325 to 350 F). Or, heat a gas grill to medium hot. Drain wood chips and sprinkle over hot coals. Or, set on a double thickness of foil on grate over gas burner. Cover grill to heat grates thoroughly.

Use tongs to arrange chicken, skin side down, in a single, uncrowded layer on grates. Cover grill; cook without turning, for 20 minutes. Gently loosen chicken and flip. Move pieces around as necessary to adjust for hot spots and so chicken cooks evenly without excess browning. Cover grill; cook until juices run clear, for 15 to 20 minutes.

Transfer to a serving platter. Sprinkle with herbs and serve. Makes 6 servings.

Tribune News Service photo