While diners’ love affair with spicy food continues to grow, trend experts are noticing a new twist on our love affair with heat-inducing foods: we’re seeking something more than a “scorched tongue” sear, and ordering foods that offer a flavor-forward approach to spiciness.
“If you want flavor with your heat, harissa is a terrific option,” says Maeve Webster, president of Menu Matters, a consultancy focused on helping foodservice operators and food manufacturers analyze, understand and leverage trends. The spice blend is used as a paste or powder, and it’s a common ingredient in North African countries including Tunisia, Libya and Morocco. “It’s similar to the Mediterranean’s pesto sauce, in that every region — and just about every cook — has a different version of harissa.”
Roasted red peppers are the traditional harissa base, but Webster says that peppers such as serrano or Tunisian Baklouti may be used, too. “From there, spices and herbs are added, and that’s where regional preferences come into play. You can find garlic, saffron, coriander and caraway in many versions, but also lots of other herbs and spices.” Harissa paste can be used as a condiment for grilled meat or fish, added to roasted vegetables and stirred into stews and soups. The powder can be a dry rub for proteins, or sprinkled to spice up couscous, popcorn or rice.
No pain, flavor gain
Webster calls harissa a “pioneer flavor,” because it can be an easy entry point for diners who then go on to explore much more of a culture’s cuisine. “It’s incredibly versatile, and I’ve seen it being used with burgers, as a sandwich spread, as a rub or in dips and sauces. It offers heat, but not the painful kind that makes you sweaty and miserable. The flavor is dense and complex.”
Webster links the uptick of harissa’s appearance on menus with the tendency for restaurants to devote increased creativity and experimentation to their side dish offerings. “We’re seeing an explosion in the ‘sides’ area of menus,” she says. “Restaurants — and diners — might be more willing to take a chance on a new flavor like harissa in a smaller and lower-cost side dish. Diners love to try something new, but their desire for experimentation conflicts with their fear of commitment. An inventive harissa side dish allows plate sharing and a chance to experience new flavors at the table.”
• 36 oz. Marzetti® Italian Dressing
• 8 oz. Harissa Paste
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