Saturday, May 8, 2010
Harissa at Cava Mezze Makes Me Question My Childhood
Studies show that people strongly prefer the same foods they ate during childhood. Branen and Fletcher found that, "Despite their struggle for autonomy and experimentation, adolescents eventually revert to preferring the same foods as their parents."
Maybe that's why I still crave harissa. My mom set her family's mouths on fire for years with this tangy Moroccan condiment, ever since she discovered this recipe in a 1989 edition of Glamour magazine:
4 t crushed red pepper flakes
1 garlic clove, minced
1 t ground cumin
3 T olive oil
2 T tomato paste
2 T freshly squeezed lemon juice
In small bowl, combine red pepper flakes, garlic, and cumin. Using fork, blend in oil, then tomato pasted and lemon juice. Makes about 1/4 cup.
Now, I'm really not sure why Glamour magazine thought its target audience wanted four teaspoons of crushed red pepper flakes with their celebrity gossip, love calculators and lip gel ads, but, whatever the reason, it worked out well for the Fuchs family. My mom spread the harissa over a Berber stew with couscous, raisins, carrots, green peppers and the like - it was the chum that set off a Moroccan feeding frenzy.
No other version of harissa has since compared.
Other recipes I've tried with sugar, paprika, or spearmint have disappointed. The harissa at Leblandese Taverna lacked flavor. And even the bellydancers at Marakkesh couldn't convince me that their harissa had enough cumin or garlic - it was all fire and lemon.
Could it be true that the world's best harissa recipe came from a decades-old ladies' housekeeping journal? Had I really climbed to the top of Mount Moroccan Condiment? I felt like Alexander, weeping because there were no more worlds to conquer.
But this past week I went to Cava Mezze in Rockville. Before the meal, the waiter dropped off a small plate of harissa and pita for the table. The first thing I noticed was that the harissa wasn't very spicy, but I didn't mind because the garlic and tomato flavors were fantastic.
It was so good that I paid 7 bucks to take home half a pound. One of the great things about harissa is that it keeps in the refrigerator for months, but I eviscerated Cava's version in only a couple days - as fast as the Tunisians, who have harissa as an appetizer for every meal.
No reason to mourn my empty to-go box, though; Cava contracts with a plant called Potomac Fine Foods, located in Rockville, to produce the restaurant's harissa and hummus for supermarket shelves. I scored this at the Tenley Whole Foods:
$5.75 might sound like a lot for 8.5 ounces, but it seemed like a steal after what I paid at the restaurant. And it was considerably spicier than the restaurant version - maybe Cava thinks the hardcore harissa lover willing to track it down at a market expects some real zing.
So, why is this harissa so good that it almost makes me forget about Glamour magazine? I'm suspicious there's a top-secret tablespoon of butter involved, but a less cynical theory, especially given that it's produced locally, is that they only use fresh ingredients.
Mom, get back to reading those women's magazines - you've got some competition!