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Originally published Saturday, February 12, 2011 at 7:00 AM

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Harissa, a red chili sauce, enlivens foods

Seasonings: Monica Bhide shares a recipe for harissa (Tunisian hot chili sauce) and tips on how to use it.

Scripps Howard News Service

I love harissa, the lovely red chili sauce that comes from North African cuisine. I use the condiment to excess in stews, soups and sandwiches, as a topping for pizzas, a flavor booster for pastas and even on French fries. It's addictive — for me, anyway.

Harissa is prepared with chili peppers, coriander, cumin and olive oil, with regional variations. Fair warning: It is superhot and spicy. You can make it milder by using milder peppers, but the heat is part of its charm.

When I asked on Twitter and Facebook about people's harissa habits, the number of exclamation points in the typed responses seemed to echo the sauce's heat intensity. Chef Janis McLean enthusiastically suggested it as "a go-to flavor boost in aioli," the garlic- and olive-oil-based sauce. "Instant yum!!" Cookbook author Patricia Tanumihardja told me she "fell hard for harissa" when she made a Moroccan stuffed shad dish, seasoning its date and almond filling with the paste.

Blogger Lisa Rosen said she incorporates harissa in everyday cooking. She:

• Smears it on sandwiches, including plain turkey sandwiches (http://bookwoman.com/2009/10/23/sandwichesdo-recipe/). Combined with cheddar or Muenster, it "makes a grilled cheese transcendent," Rosen said.

• Spreads it on whole chicken before roasting ("only if my kids aren't eating" it, she writes, acknowledging they don't share her taste preference). Rosen also uses harissa as a dipping sauce for grilled chicken.

• Uses it "on all kinds of vegetables — over couscous sorts of dinners."

Joan Nathan shares my love of harissa. Author of the cookbook "Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France" (Knopf, 2010), Nathan sampled harissa in France and in Israel.

Nathan advised being frugal with very hot harissa. "Use a scant tiny teaspoon of it and stir it into other things, like mayonnaise or dressings,"she said.

While Nathan sometimes makes harissa from scratch, "there are some great brands on the market, especially Pereg Gourmet," Nathan added. "It has lots of red peppers, lots of garlic and cilantro, among other things."

This hot sauce — common in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia — varies from village to village. It's delicious on falafel and grilled meat. A teaspoon of it will cut through the worst head cold.

HARISSA (TUNISIAN HOT CHILI SAUCE)

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4 ounces (about 18) dried hot red New Mexico chili peppers

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed

7 to 8 garlic cloves, peeled

½ teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon coarse salt, or to taste

Cut off stems and soak peppers in warm water until soft; drain and squeeze out any excess water. Grind peppers in a food processor, processing with ¼ cup of the olive oil, the garlic cloves, cumin, coriander and salt. The consistency should be a thick purée, the color of deep red salmon. Transfer to a jar, add the remaining olive oil, cover and refrigerate.

Let the mixture sit for a few days before using, until the harissa becomes less opaque. Use sparingly, because it's very hot. Makes about 1 cup

Monica Bhide: monica@monicabhide.com

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