Alex Guarnaschelli is an Iron Chef, Food Network celebrity chef, author of Old-School Comfort Food and the executive chef at New York City’s Butter restaurants. Read her PEOPLE.com blog every Tuesday to get her professional cooking tips, family-favorite recipes and personal stories of working in front of the camera and behind the kitchen doors. Follow her on Twitter at @guarnaschelli.
I really love hot sauce. In almost every restaurant in America, there is a stash of homemade hot sauce. It usually represents the tapestry of different cultures that often converge beautifully in a professional kitchen.
I have doused pasta, eggs and meat with some of the most beautiful hot sauces over the years. It is the little “spark plug” for cooks to make their food taste special.
If you cook all day long, how does food you eat have any taste? Good question. You need something that packs a punch! In general, I am partial to the magic of dried chili peppers: ancho or pasilla. Once hydrated, the way they impart flavor and provide natural thickness is stunning. Their heat can be mellow and unfold slowly. Sometimes I make an exception for a sauce that has a lovely combination of spices.
This hot sauce recipe is one of my favorites. Harissa is a North African chili pepper sauce, spicy! It gets better and better the longer it sits in your fridge. I sometimes forget I have a jar of it and love coming across it when looking for something to give a little zing to dinner.
The condiment comes together in two parts: The first is spices that are bloomed in butter. The second part is the vegetables (peppers and zucchini) that cook down with the cayenne and mustard providing the body and thickness of the sauce. One note: The paprika and cayenne can create a decent heat factor. If you want this mellower, simply omit. The coriander, mustard and peppers all provide really beautiful flavors.
The thing is, you don’t have to eat it straight and make it a super spicy bite of food. Put a little bit into a tomato soup or your cooking liquid from some steamed mussels. Put a “dot” into a salad dressing or a sauce for meat or fish. Sometimes that little tingle of heat can make food taste so much more delicious without being too spicy.
It’s also great with just vegetables—grilled leeks in particular. You can also simply split the leeks lengthwise and roast them on a tray in the oven if grilling is not an option. Try drizzling the harissa on fried or scrambled eggs. Or try it with artichoke hearts, roasted carrots or roasted potatoes for a winning combination.
Alex Guarnaschelli’s Harissa
½ stick unsalted butter
¼ cup whole coriander seeds, crushed
1 tbsp. whole cumin seeds
1 tbsp. yellow sesame seeds
1 tbsp. Spanish paprika
1 tbsp. mustard powder
2 tbsp. olive oil
5 large garlic cloves
½ tsp. cayenne pepper
Insides scraped from 1 large green zucchini
2 red bell peppers, seeded and finely chopped
2 tbsp. smooth Dijon mustard
1 tsp. red wine vinegar
1. Bloom the spices: Heat a large sauté pan and melt the butter. Do not brown the butter. Add the coriander, cumin, sesame, paprika, mustard powder and a pinch of salt. Heat the spices until they start to sizzle, 1-2 minutes. Watch so they don’t burn. Simmer gently. Shut off heat.
2. Prepare the vegetables: In another pan, warm the oil, garlic and cayenne over low heat. Stir in the zucchini flesh, peppers and a generous pinch of salt. Cook over medium heat until the vegetables are completely tender, 12-15 minutes. Stir in the mustard and red wine vinegar. In the bowl of the food processor, combine the butter-toasted spices with the vegetables and pulse to blend until somewhat smooth. There should be a little bit of chunky texture to it. If the mix is too thick, add a splash of water while blending. Refrigerate at least a day or two before eating.