For years now, Do and I have grown progressively more interested in the culinary culture of the Tunisian Sephardic community, where Do's maternal side hails from. A recent family reunion, complete with spirited arguments over the proper way to make Malmoula, so fueled this interest that we picked up Tess Mallos' North African Cooking cookbook the next time we were near a good cookbook bookstore. (P.S. Culinary Institute of America in Napa has an outrageous collection of cookbooks in their shop). We have very high hopes for this book: it has all the Tunisian classics of Doran's childhood memories, there are beautiful photos of every recipe, and the dishes seem exotic yet do-able given our time/energy constraints.
So last Thursday we tried it for the first time. We made Harissa Soup.
Yes, you got the name right. Harissa, as in the super fiery hot condiment that is ubiquitous on Tunisian tables. In a soup. Yup. :) It's like saying, "oh we had Tabasco soup tonight." Even my Texas self was a little apprehensive about that one.
Let me just say, it was amazing. I had seconds, Do had thirds. This recipe is going into the regular dinner rotation, and into the "All Time Favorites" category on this blog.
Some reassurance: it was nowhere near as spicy as I was expecting. In fact, I doubled/quatrupled most of the spicy ingredients just to suit our taste, and it still was a perfectly reasonable dish to serve company. Well, maybe not our German friends, but all others. It's spicy, but more in the complex, deep, exotic way than in the fire-in-your-mouth way. It's spicy and complex the way Indian food is spicy and complex: the heat is fun but not essential and definitely not all-encompassing. And it's perfect like that; I wouldn't try to make it hotter.
The soup itself is beautiful - the color is very vibrant in a way that my camera couldn't capture in the kitchen light. Unlike most soups, this one has great texture thanks to the couscous, the potatoes, the bits of tomato, etc. Every bite is interesting, texturally.
I'd be interested in trying to replace the can of tomatoes with fresh tomatoes, especially given how fantastic our tomatoes are out here in California. Do cautions me that some Tunisian dishes, like Malmoula, just aren't as good with fresh tomatoes. I'm thinking that with fresh tomatoes, and chilled, this soup could be a (much more interesting) Algerian take on gazpacho. In the winter, the soup's heartiness could be preserved with the canned tomatoes and Kale would be a fine addition.
Oh, and it's vegan.
Chorba hara bi keskou (Harissa soup with couscous). Serves 6.
4 Tbs Olive Oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed (Neen: use more if your Harissa isn't garlicky)
1 tsp Harissa (Neen: Er, no. If not using imported Harissa, use 4-5 large dollops.)
1 Tbs Paprika (Neen: make that ~3 Tbs)
14 oz can chopped tomatoes, undrained.
6 cups water (Neen: add 3 cubes veggies bouillon cubes)
2 medium potatoes, ~12oz in total
1/2 cup instant coucous
3 Tbs finely chopped cilantro. (Neen: or more. We heart cilantro and used one bunch).
Heat oil in soup pot. Add onion and cook gently until transparent (~10min). Add garlic and cook for 1 min. Add Harissa to taste and cook gently, stirring, 1-2min. Add paprika, tomatoes in their liquid, water, and veggie bouillon cubes. Bring to Boil.
Cut potatoes into 1/2" cubes and add to soup. Cover and simmer until potatoes are tender (~20min). Stir in coucous and boil gently, uncovered, until coucous has swelled and softened (~10min). Taste, add more harissa and/or salt and pepper if desired. Stir in cilantro, let stand 5 min.
Serve hot in deep soup bowls with bread.