Homemade harissa sauce sparks ordinary grilled chicken

JeanMarie Brownson
Chicago Tribune
Grilled chicken with harissa sauce and couscous, prepared and styled by Shannon Kinsella, in the test kitchen,

We grill several nights a week for the better part of six months a year. To keep things fresh, I employ a variety of spice rubs, marinades, barbecue sauces and basting sauces. Lately, a spicy red harissa sauce finds its way onto everything I want to grill, from chicken and fish to pork chops and eggplant.

I’ve made numerous harissa sauces since my days as a test cook at Cuisine magazine. For one issue, we explored the flavors of Morocco. My affection for this highly aromatic cuisine never wavers — there are always preserved lemons in my refrigerator, orange and rose water in the pantry, and seasoning blends in the drawer. I usually stock several versions of harissa in jars in the fridge.

Like salsa or chimichurri, harissa proves a great condiment to serve alongside grilled meats and vegetables. Harissa, says Robert Carrier in his classic cookbook “A Taste of Morocco” (published in 1987), is a “fiery condiment based on hot red peppers, olive oil and garlic, common to … Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.”

Harissa also can be added to stews and soups and to flavor couscous and other grain side dishes. It enlivens scrambled eggs, sandwiches and green salads.

I like the simple combination of olive oil, garlic and spices from Cuisine magazine to use as a condiment. An adapted version of the recipe follows here; a high-speed blender will do the best job of crushing the seeds. My 2019 version gets enriched with fire-roasted red bell peppers, which add body along with a hint of sweetness. I’ve had good results with several dried, mild red chile options in the sauce, including Korean gochugaru, sweet imported paprika and ground New Mexico chiles.

When harissa is destined for marinating meats and poultry, I add a touch of Greek yogurt for tang. If I’m serving the harissa as a condiment, I skip the yogurt and reduce the fresh garlic a bit so it’s not overpowering. (I must confess that in a time crunch, I doctor store-bought harissa with yogurt, tomato paste and olive oil.)

My harissa seasoning sauce adds terrific flavor for marinating chicken, pork, turkey and lamb. Marinate poultry or meat for at least 2 hours (or up to 24 hours for bone-in cuts) so the flavors permeate nicely.

For the juiciest grilled chicken, I prefer to use chicken parts with their bones and skin intact. For the most attractive presentation, cook split chicken; cut small (3 to 4 pound) chickens in half through the breastbone, then cut out the backbone to create two half pieces.

Use a charcoal grill fired with hardwood charcoal and a few wood chips to add a smoky flavor that beautifully complements the harissa. If using a gas grill, add a packet of soaked wood chips over the burner. Then grill with the marinade still clinging to the meat, over medium to medium-low heat to keep things moist and to prevent burning.

To accompany grilled chicken, I serve toasted bread spread with the harissa and a quick-cooking couscous topped with caramelized red onions, raisins and broccoli. Of course, pass the harissa sauce.



Adapted from Cuisine magazine

In a high-speed blender, add 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil, 9 cloves garlic, 1/2 cup fenugreek seeds, 3 tablespoons crushed red peppers, 1 tablespoon caraway seeds and 1 1/2 teaspoons each salt, ground cardamom and ground coriander. Blend until very smooth. Pour into a small jar. Pour olive oil over the surface of the sauce to cover it completely. Makes: about 1 cup.

Shortcut harissa marinade: Combine a 6.7-ounce jar of harissa sauce (such as Trader Joe’s Traditional Tunisian Harissa) with 1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt and 2 tablespoons each olive oil and tomato paste. Makes: about 1 cup.


Prep: 15 minutes

Cook: 10 minutes

Makes: about 2 1/2 cups

2 medium-large red bell peppers

1 large lemon

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup ground mild, red New Mexico chile powder or gochugaru (or sweet paprika with 1/4 teaspoon cayenne)

3 tablespoons tomato paste

2 tablespoons plain Greek yogurt, optional

3 to 5 cloves garlic, peeled, crushed

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1/4 teaspoon ground caraway seeds

1. Put bell peppers directly over a gas burner (or 6 inches from the broiler element) and roast, turning often, until the skin blisters and blackens on all sides, about 10 minutes. Put peppers into a bowl; cover with a towel and let cool. Rub off the blackened skins; rinse the peppers. Discard the core and seeds. Roughly chop the peppers and put into a blender.

2. Use a rasp grater to zest the lemon into the blender. Cut the lemon in half; squeeze the lemon juice into the blender. Add remaining ingredients. Process until mixture is very smooth.

3. Transfer to a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Sauce keeps in the refrigerator at least 2 weeks.

Nutrition information per tablespoon: 19 calories, 2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 0 g protein, 115 mg sodium, 1 g fiber


Prep: 15 minutes

Marinate: 2 hours to overnight

Cook: 40 minutes

Makes: 6 servings

For the juiciest grilled chicken, use chicken parts with their bones and skin intact. If using boneless chicken, reduce marinating time to 1 to 2 hours and reduce grilling time to 20 to 25 minutes.

1 1/2 cups maple, cherry or apple wood chips for grilling

3 to 4 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken parts such as thighs, breast halves, drumsticks, wings

1 cup harissa seasoning sauce and marinade, see recipe

Chopped fresh cilantro, chives or a combination

1. Put wood chips in a bowl of water; let soak several hours or overnight.

2. Place chicken pieces in a large bowl. Add the harissa seasoning sauce. Use clean hands to thoroughly coat all sides of the chicken pieces. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 2 hours or up to 24 hours.

3. Prepare a charcoal grill and let coals burn until they are at medium heat and covered in gray ash (an oven thermometer will register 325 to 350 degrees). Or, heat a gas grill to medium hot. Drain wood chips and sprinkle over the hot coals. Or, set on a double thickness of foil on the grate over the gas burner. Cover the grill to heat the grill grates thoroughly.

4. Use tongs to arrange chicken, skin side down, in a single uncrowded layer on the grates. Cover grill; cook without turning, 20 minutes. Gently loosen chicken and flip. Move pieces around as necessary to adjust for hot spots and so chicken cooks evenly without excess browning. Cover the grill; cook until the juices run clear, 15 to 20 minutes.

5. Transfer to a serving platter. Sprinkle with herbs and serve.

Nutrition information per serving: 332 calories, 22 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 142 mg cholesterol, 4 g carbohydrates, 4 g sugar, 35 g protein, 420 mg sodium, 4 g fiber


Prep: 15 minutes

Cook: 20 minutes

Makes: 6 to 8 servings

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon each, ground: cumin, cinnamon, paprika (or 1 1/2 teaspoons baharat or ras el hanout seasoning)

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 large (12 ounce) red onion, halved, thinly sliced

4 cups (12 ounces) broccoli florets

4 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 cup dark raisins

2 cups chicken broth

2 cups couscous

Chopped fresh cilantro

Harissa seasoning sauce and marinade, see recipe

1. Mix salt, cumin, cinnamon and paprika in a small dish. Heat a large skillet over medium heat until hot. Add 3 tablespoons of the oil and the onion. Cook, stirring often, until onion softens and caramelizes nicely, 10 to 15 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, heat a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add broccoli; cook uncovered until broccoli is nearly tender when pierced with a knife, about 4 minutes. Drain; rinse under cold water.

3. Stir garlic, 1 teaspoon of the seasoning mixture and raisins into the onions. Cook and stir, 1 minute. Stir in the broccoli; remove from the heat.

4. Put broth, remaining 1 tablespoon oil and remaining seasoning into a medium-size saucepan and heat to boil over medium heat. Stir in couscous, cover the pan tightly. Remove from heat and let stand 5 minutes. Reheat the broccoli mixture.

5. Fluff couscous with a fork then pile onto a platter. Top with the broccoli mixture. Sprinkle with cilantro. Serve with the harissa for spooning over.

Nutrition information per serving: 280 calories, 7 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 47 g carbohydrates, 8 g sugar, 8 g protein, 327 mg sodium, 4 g fiber


Heat oven to 400 degrees. Split a whole grain baguette horizontally in half. Put both halves on a baking sheet. Brush the cut sides generously with olive oil. Spread the cut sides generously with 1/3 to 1/2 cup harissa seasoning sauce and marinade (see recipe). Bake until the edges of the bread crisp and brown and the sauce bubbles, 6 to 10 minutes. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro. Serve hot.