Yet again the weather has foiled my food plans. I had gazpacho in mind, but as I write this the forecast is ‘rain becoming heavy and persistent’ and cold soup is definitely not rain food. So I want something hot, but not starchy and wintry which means spice and heat without the weight. And on this cold island I start thinking about hot country food, particularly North African. Harissa, the hot chilli spice paste that is to couscous and tagines what fish sauce is to Thai curries, has become readily available in recent years so much so that a search for it on BBC Good Food brings up 61 recipes, including this one. Tesco’s might not stock it (at least online) but most other supermarkets do. However, it’s also really easy to make at home and, unlike the Sainsbury’s version, it won’t include things like lactic acid and beetroot. And a pot of homemade harissa can be used in all sorts of marinades and sauces, transforming prawns or lamb without requiring the contents of the spice rack. Only ten or eleven ingredients are required to make this dish, and half of those are for the harissa, yet it tastes complex and satisfying. Diluting the harissa and pouring it onto the couscous is a very authentic use of this bright red paste but best not to add too much if you don’t want to be bright red yourself.
Harissa lamb with couscous (adapted from BBC Good Food)
(lamb serves 2; harissa recipe makes more than enough for a few weeks and it will keep in the fridge)
For the harissa (recipe adapted from Don’t Sweat the Aubergine) you will need:
Cupboard (or things you may already have)
½ clove garlic
dried red chillis, 15g
caraway, seeds, ½ teaspoon of each
cumin and coriander seeds, ¼ teaspoon (a good pinch) of each
For the harissa lamb with couscous
Cupboard (or things you may already have)
salt and pepper
harissa (or make some as per the recipe above), about 2 tablespoons (30g)
lamb (use either steaks or shoulder; I used the latter and cubed it up myself), 300g
Demerara sugar, 1 tablespoon
herb salad (half of one of those 100-120g bags with a mix of rocket, mint, basil and coriander would be good) or a couple of handfuls of loose salad leaves and herbs (again rocket, mint, basil and coriander would work)
How to (harissa)
1. Make the harissa by soaking the dried chillis in boiling water and leaving them for an hour. Next peel and chop the half-garlic clove.
2. Heat up a small frying pan then dry-fry/toast the seeds in it until they are just starting to go brown (when your kitchen is full of a toasty spice fragrance you’ll know they’re done).
3. Put the toasted seeds with the garlic in a blender/food processor and blend/process until fine (or grind them in a pestle and mortar). Tip them out into a bowl but don’t wash the blender/food processor/pestle yet.
4. Drain the chillis, blend/process/grind them to a paste then mix them into the bowl with the spices and garlic and a pinch of salt.
5. Put the harissa into a clean lidded jar, pour in a little olive oil to cover the surface of the paste then store, covered, in the fridge until needed. I find it improves dramatically after a week or so.
How to (harissa lamb)
1. Put the couscous into a large heatproof bowl and, if your meat is in one piece, cut it up into small pieces and season. Rinse the salad and drain. Mix one tablespoon of harissa with 1 tablespoon of Demerara sugar and leave to one side.
2. In a heatproof jug or mixing bowl put 2 teaspoons of harissa then add 200ml boiling water and stir. Tip over the couscous, stir together and leave for about five minutes. During that time it should absorb all the water and become fluffy but add a little more water if it’s still too crunchy.
3. Meanwhile heat a teaspoon of olive oil in a frying pan and brown the lamb on all sides (about a minute). Then spread the harissa-sugar mix all over the meat and cook for another minute or two on each side until crunchy and brown. Take out of the pan and leave to rest for a couple of minutes. Don’t wash the pan yet.
4. While the meat is resting, fluff up the couscous and divide it between two bowls and put the salad leaves on top.
5. Finally, put the meat on the salad then make a sauce: put the frying pan back on the heat, add some hot water and stir all the meat juices and harissa-sugar crunchy bits together and bring to the boil quickly. Once it is bubbling tip it over the lamb and couscous and serve.