Fermentation: A Transformative Marvel
In a recent conversation, Chef Cortney Burns told me a tantalizing story that immediately made me want to taste the harissa she made. Her eyes lit up when she talked about the flavor potential and array of applications found in the two gallons of fiery, deep deliciousness: harissa mayo for dipping, a wonderful base for soups, romesco, and even barbecue sauce.
I had only known harissa as a lackluster accompaniment to dishes that didn’t hit the mark, so it never caught my attention. It was clear that I was missing out on a condiment I not only needed to experience properly, but learn how to make.
Cortney made it clear her version is inspired by what she had tasted in Morocco and is not at all traditional. Instead of the commonly seen mixture of roasted fresh and dried peppers, she dehydrates a lacto-fermented chili paste to use as the base. From there, she grinds spices (cumin, coriander, and black pepper were the few she mentioned) and blooms them in warmed olive oil.
Once it cools and is mixed into the paste, she follows with fresh herbs (parsley, dill, marjoram, and mint), preserved lemon, and an array of other ingredients blended into a harmony of aromatics, complexity, and bright flavors.
Influenced by her excitement and experimentation, I needed to make it immediately. I didn’t have her harissa recipe written down, nor the key ingredients (the lacto-fermented peppers and preserved lemons). But as an avid fermenter and food preserver, I was not at all concerned.
I used roasted poblano peppers, Mexican dried chiles, and recado rojo (a bright red spice mix central to the cuisine of Yucatán) gifted to me by Chef James Wayman. Misozuke limes — limes preserved in miso — took the place of preserved lemons. For the spices, caraway, sumac and foraged, dried spicebush berries would match well enough.
To add a touch of umami, I included a little homemade douchi (Chinese fermented black beans) made by my fellow fermentation friend Sean Doherty. I purposely didn’t add onions, garlic, or the array of remaining ingredients so the paste could be used in both savory and sweet applications.
Tasting it caused multiple flavor flashbacks, transporting me to the comforting bites I experienced at a friend’s Moroccan restaurant over 10 years ago, and further back to the Taiwanese flavors of my childhood. Fueled by my excitement, I couldn’t help but take my new flavor baby for a spin by incorporating it into a pizza and doughnut for a pop-up event with James.
Through my obsession with shakshuka, we made a pie driven by those elements: harissa-spiked sauce topped with a green garlic toum, fresh cheese, herbs, and an egg yolk sauce drizzled on top. It was wonderful. Since the harissa was allium free, it also happily married with Japanese knotweed for a killer tart jam filled doughnut topped with bits of goat cheese and a drizzle of barley koji honey. The hit of the pop-up!
As an obsessed fermenter, I may have a few more substitution options at hand than most. However, you likely have plenty of possibilities at your fingertips. Preserved lemons are essentially tart and salty with a touch of bitterness. Do you have olives and lemon zest kicking around? Maybe you have a jar of capers and your favorite hot sauce?
Most of the spices are fairly common, but who’s to say you can’t just use black pepper, dried oregano, cinnamon, nutmeg and whatever comforting spices you like, all mixed together? Dare I say pumpkin spice? For the umami hit, no one will know if you add a few dashes of soy sauce. In essence, this is a very forgiving condiment to make, one that leverages elements from ingredients you already enjoy.
When you think about making something new, don’t let the ingredients limit you. Not to say that you shouldn’t make it traditionally following the exact process. It’s essential for understanding, but not always practical. The key to being a good cook and eater is using what you have readily available and not being afraid to discover a new flavor combination you can’t live without. At the end of the day, it’s an extension of eating the food you already know and love.
FERMENT is an ongoing series of columns about fermentation as a wellbeing practice.