In the Midwest, we’ve had a bit of a cool down—autumn’s first peck on the cheek to say she’s almost here. With the change of seasons, will come new items at the markets, but some of summer’s best bets are still available—namely hot peppers.

Like so many other foods at my farmer’s market, there’s a wide variety of hot peppers. The two very hottest—the Carolina Reaper and the Ghost Pepper have finally come on strong, so I’m stocking up. But you can also find lots of Jalapeños, Hungarian Wax Peppers and Habaneros.

Freezing hot peppers is as easy as freezing bell peppers—just wash, let dry completely on a towel and then toss in a dated freezer bag. They also are easy to slice, chop and seed when frozen. However, working with them takes a little more care. Let’s prepare my absolute favorite homemade condiment: fiery North African Harissa, and I’ll show you what I mean.

Harissa is used in all kinds of dishes, and it’s the perfect introduction to using hot peppers, if you are one of those people who shies away from hot, spicy food. While Harissa can literally take your breath away if sniffed too intensely from the jar, a little (even a scant teaspoon) in a batch of scrambled eggs or a healthy tablespoon in a recipe of gazpacho (yes, the whole recipe) can take flavor from good to great. Harissa doesn’t just impart heat; it adds a depth of smoky, rich flavor that just makes me smile.

Many recipes exist for Harissa, but I go back to my tried-and-true Vegetarian Planet cookbook by Didi Emmons. Her basic recipe is the best, I think. So to start, you will need:

  • Five tablespoons red chili flakes (I really like medium-hot flakes from Penzey’s Spices.)
  • One tablespoon coriander seeds
  • One tablespoon caraway seeds
  • One teaspoon cumin seeds (We love cumin so we use a little more.)
  • One cup chopped chili peppers (I prefer a mix of peppers and heat levels here to add to the flavor—at least one reaper or ghost, both red and green jalapeños, and some hot yellow pepper such as Hungarian Wax.)
Variety of hot peppers

I’ll include all the jalapenos–red and green–and both Hungarian Wax peppers, but only a couple of those little ghosts in my Harissa.

Technique for chopping hot peppers with gloves.

Handle with care! I use a dishwasher-safe board and wear disposable sterile gloves to chop my peppers. I remove all seeds and stems. Do NOT touch your face or eyes while chopping. But be brave.








  • 15 whole garlic cloves (No, I’m not kidding, and, no, I don’t add extra.)
  • Two tablespoons apple cider vinegar (We always use Bragg.)
  • Two tablespoons water
  • A fourth cup oil (I prefer olive oil, but Ms. Emmons uses canola, so either will work.)
  • One teaspoon salt
pepper flakes, spices, garlic

Prep is important. Allow for time to soak your pepper flakes and toast your spices.

Soak the chili flakes in hot water for 25 minutes.

Lightly toast the coriander, caraway, and cumin seeds in a skillet over low heat, shaking the pan frequently. When they become fragrant, grind them in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle. (See The Challenge of Creating from Scratch for tips on dry-toasting and grinding spices.)

In a food processor or blender, puree the fresh hot peppers with the garlic, adding the vinegar while the machine is running. Drain the soaking chili flakes and add them to the machine with the ground spices. While the machine is running, slowly pour in the water and then the oil in a thin stream. Mix in the salt.

Harissa stores for up to six weeks in your refrigerator in a screw-top jar. It makes about a cup, so there is plenty to share with your friends and family. Believe me, a little does go a long way. So be brave, and give it a try.

Stay tuned, because this weekend I’m making the easiest fresh tomato soup ever, and I’m going to up its already-good flavor to spectacular by adding in a little Harissa. To highlight my last of the season watermelon, I’m going to make a salad that is just as pretty as it is good to eat. Summer’s almost over, and this is the perfect time to prepare a tribute to the season’s glory with dishes that reflect the heat, freshness and powerful flavor of this bountiful time of year.

If you try making Harissa, I’d love to know what you think.

A spoonful of Harissa

A heaping spoonful of finished Harissa: enough to season a pot of soup or an entire vegetable couscous for most people. Not kidding.

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