oh, harissa…

…you stained my favorite white shirt, but I love you anyway.

I’m a little reckless in the kitchen – I sling hash, I toss salad, I dash far too liberally and I never, ever fail to miss the trash can. I can be standing right there, RIGHT THERE, and still miss. Anyway, out of sheer utility I’ve learned to clean as I go, but there are always tell-tale signs that I’ve done a mischief – a dried strand of linguini married to a cabinet hinge or some mysterious, green leafy thing dangling from the ceiling. I don’t mean to brag, but where I truly excel is in wearing my ingredients.

Doubling-down on paste and sauce

One of the best gifts I’ve ever received from my husband was a set of 5 sturdy, black chefs’ aprons. I admit I’m not always that easy to please, but now I love them as much as I need them. Still, even the finest galvanized industrial cotton could not protect me from scarlet harissa, a smokey chile paste most often found in Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian cuisines.

Me, standing at the meat counter:


Sous chef, not missing a beat:


My sous chef and I decided on this meal when his return to college was delayed this week and subsequent New Years plans canceled all thanks to Omicron. Poor buddy – cooking with Mom was a consolation prize at best. Still, he needed a distraction, like diving into something foreign and enticing, which has been my excuse every single night of this dreaded pandemic. This recipe appeared on the Bon Appétit scroll for easy weeknight dinners and while it is technically pretty easy, harissa isn’t exactly sitting there on every spice rack between cinnamon and oregano. And it calls for ground pork, but…

lamb > pork

Making this kind of executive decision comes down to confidence or bravery or stupidity, depending on your final measure of success. I seem to take the chance more often these days. That said, I also think doing a little homework on every dish gives context and meaning, important social markers that have been backgrounded in 2021. Some days cooking was the only thing I felt I could control, so I made it count.

I’ve experimented with harissa (along with pals za’atar and ras el hanout) for months, but this “curry” was her first starring role. Everybody raved and gobbled, which although never really my goal, is a lovely reward. Moroccan cuisine was a hard pivot from most of December’s menus, but it claimed a spot two weeks in a row. Looking ahead, it also fits in with my notion to steer us toward lighter, cleaner foods – specifically no cheese and no sugar and less alcohol, all three of which are solid New Years goals.

But last night Coconut-Harissa Meatballs paired beautifully with Pinot. We aren’t barbarians, after all.

Final product

cheat sheet

  • There is harissa paste and harissa sauce. This recipe calls for 1/3 cup of paste and I had maybe 3 tablespoons on hand, so I supplemented with sauce because it was what I could find last minute. It worked just fine, although a little creamier in both color and texture than Bon Appetit’s photo.
  • The recipe calls for pork, but of course we opted for ground lamb. To counter the fat content I added about 1/4 panko to the meatball mix.
  • 1 pound of lamb gave me 16 generous 1.5” meatballs which took care of 4 people, two of whom are always hungry. Always.
  • Canned great northern beans were suitable and I added a pop of color with more chopped cilantro. Not sure all of the coconut oil was necessary to sauté the mash, but it sure contributed to a nice but subtle flavor contrast. I’d actually double the beans next time.
  • I had leftover basmati rice from Christmas Day, steamed with coriander pods, cloves, ginger and peppercorns. Dang, that worked out well.
  • Chopped spinach could be sneaked into the red sauce and pre-empt the need for a salad or separate veggie(s).

the rest of the week

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