Guard owl and green harissa

Guard owl

It is the nature of gardening that after you have solved one problem the next challenge already lurks around the corner. After we moved the elderberry patch to a new location with moister soil last fall, the bushes are thriving. They developed many blossoms, albeit unusually late in the season, and some of them are still flowering.

ElderberriesThe birds would be just as happy about the elderberries as I am so the next question was how to protect them. We looked into bird netting and quickly dismissed the idea as too involved and too expensive. Then I remembered the plastic owl we had not used in years. So up on a tall stick it went. To give it more weight and make it sway more in the wind, my husband filled it with insulation foam.

If the birds won’t get used to the sight of the owl by the time the elderberries ripen, I am slightly optimistic that we will have elderberries this year!

Green bell peppers are an unwanted by-product from my garden. I do not like them and they only land in my kitchen when a stem breaks off, or when I harvest all of them before the first frost, regardless of their color. I have not been very successful in ripening peppers in a brown paper bag or cardboard box; they always soften before turning orange or red.

Yes, I do not like green bell peppers but that does not mean I would ever dump them on the compost. I usually freeze them, hoping that I will eventually find a recipe that uses lots of green peppers. The only recipe I make on a regular basis is Black Bean Soup with Cilantro, however that is only one green pepper down. I have looked for recipes using lots of green peppers but they always ask for so many other ingredients I do not have at hand that making those recipes would defeat the purpose.

Cleaning out the freezer the other day left me with two large bags of green peppers from last year. They had to go, with minimum effort and other ingredients. I decided to try my hands on some sort of mild harissa, hoping for a miraculous green pepper metamorphosis. Worst thing that could happen would be to throw them out after all.

A few hours later I had three jars of a smooth tasty olive-green spread for sandwiches or crackers. A generous amount of ground coriander and caraway gives it a distinct “Tunisian” flavor. And I was able to use up some leftover jalapeños in the process, too!

Green harissa

I am not sure my late Tunisian grandmother would call this a harissa but she was a recycler herself so she would understand.

Green Harissa

2.5 pounds cored and seeded green bell peppers

12 garlic cloves, chopped

2 teaspoons ground coriander

2 teaspoons ground cumin

5 cored and seeded jalapeños, to taste

1 teaspoon chili powder

2 teaspoons salt

½ cup olive oil, more for covering

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Place all ingredients in a large cast-iron Dutch oven. Cook in the preheated oven for 2 to 3 hours until the liquid has been absorbed and the peppers are mushy, turning once in a while at the beginning, and more often towards the end.

3. Puree in the food processor or with a stick blender. Fill into sterilized jars with screw-top lids and pour a bit of olive oil on top. Keep refrigerated and use within 2 to 3 weeks.

Makes 2 to 3 medium jars

Color, after all

I was too quick concluding that the jalapeños from the garden I hung up for drying are not changing color – they are. On sunny days I put them out every morning, move them with the sun in the afternoon, and bring them in at night. That might sound quite involved but what wouldn’t I do for a good, homemade harissa?

The harissa that comes in small cans like tomato paste or tubes is awful – it is nothing but hot. The real stuff for me is harissa berbère. It is based on sun-dried chilis and blended with garlic and spices. When I lived in Tunis, one of the highlights of my week was shopping at the Marché central on Saturdays. I would always buy a glob of harissa berbère, which was sold in bulk from a large mound sitting out in the open. The spice merchant would scoop off a glob onto a piece of wax paper. I usually could not wait to spread it thickly on fresh flatbread with nigella seeds, another one of my favorites. When I told my aunt that I bought harissa in bulk at the market, she was appalled. I never got sick.

It will be a while before the chili peppers are ready but I already have my harissa recipe lined up. Unfortunately I don’t have my Tunisian grandmother’s recipe. This is as close to hers, and other genuine harissa berbère, as I could get it.


Basically you can use any red chili peppers you like. The more seeds you remove, the milder the harissa will be. I usually remove most of the seeds. Wear disposable gloves when handling the chilis. Harissa keeps for several weeks in the fridge.

12 dried red chili peppers

1 tablespoon plus ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, more for pouring on top

3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped

½ teaspoon coarsely ground caraway seeds

½ teaspoon coarsely ground cumin

½ teaspoon coarsely ground coriander

Kosher salt to taste

1. Remove the stems from the peppers. Cut them in half and remove all or some of the seeds. Put the peppers in a small heatproof bowl. Pour boiling water over them, just enough to cover. Press the peppers into the water and soak for a few minutes.

2. In the meantime heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a small skillet. Add the garlic and spices and cook over medium heat until fragrant. Stir often and make sure the garlic does not brown. Remove from the heat and let cool.

3. Drain the chilis and place them in the food processor with all the other ingredients. Process in a food processor or blender to a coarse or fine consistency according to taste. Season with salt and fill in a sterilized glass jar. Smoothen the top and pour additional olive oil over it to prevent harissa from drying out, and refrigerate.

Pepper plenty

It is as if the peppers are trying to make up for the poor zucchini and cucumber harvest this year. As always, I start cutting off all bell pepper blossoms in early August so the plants put their energy into the peppers that are already there, and I don’t end up with oodles of tiny green peppers at the onset of frost in October.

A bumper crop of bell peppers is not a problem – I freeze them and use them all winter long for various dishes and my Red Pepper Spread. But what to do with all those jalapeños from one single plant? After I used them for salsa, and froze and dried some (they are not turning red as expected), I was running out of ideas, especially since my husband does not like hot foods. Then I found a fabulous recipe for Bread and Butter Jalapeños. After I tried the first bite I instantly regretted that I had only made half the recipe. They were gone in a few days. I even ate some straight out of the jar, something I usually never do. Now I am collecting all the jalapeños for canning a large batch.

Yesterday I felt a slight disappointment rising when there was only a handful of jalapeños, and was reassured seeing plenty of more growing. Interesting how one great recipe can make you change your perspective.

Overcoming the green tomato prejudice

Until now I have been heavily prejudiced against green tomatoes. Not that I ever ate a green tomato. When I occasionally had green tomatoes in the garden because a branch broke off, or I ended up with green tomatoes at the end of the season, I would rather throw them on the compost pile than using them for cooking.

Maybe it’s the idea of eating something unripe that put me off. I know fried green tomatoes are a southern specialty but I was never tempted to try them. I am not a health fanatic but when I use artery-clogging ingredients, I prefer do to it when there is no alternative, such as butter in a piecrust. Also, I do not like the idea of buying additional produce in the height of the harvest to make something with green tomatoes.

When I collected a couple of pounds of green tomatoes from the garden this week, I reconsidered. I constantly try new things, so why not give green tomatoes a second chance and make chutney? I browsed recipes online and went through my cookbooks for inspiration. The only condition I set for myself was that I would minimize the purchase of extra ingredients. Since I have jalapeno peppers in the garden right now (also a premiere), and lots of fresh garlic, the only thing I had to buy for this Green Tomato Chutney were apples. All the other ingredients were staples I had in the house.

As the prospective main chutney eater besides me does not like it too spicy, I removed the seeds from the jalapenos. I am glad I did because the chutney is already quite hot as is. For a hotter version, simply include some or all of the seeds.

I don’t think I will ever actually pick green tomatoes but at least I have a simple recipe that I like in case green tomatoes come upon me. I look forward to opening the first jar of chutney and eat it with Indian food this fall or winter.

For now it’s back to fresh red tomatoes.

Green Tomato Chutney

2 to 2¼ pounds green tomatoes

10 garlic cloves

1 large onion

1 large or 2 small tart apples (I used green summer apples)

3 jalapeno peppers

1 1-inch piece fresh ginger

1 tablespoon black peppercorns

1 tablespoon whole allspice

6 cardamom pods

1 pound 6 ounces Turbinado sugar

1 tablespoon salt

1 cup white wine vinegar

3 bay leaves

1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds

6 whole cloves

1 teaspoon dried orange peel

1 teaspoon finely grated zest from an organic lemon

You also need:

A canning pot, or a very large stockpot

5 half-pint canning jars

5 bands

5 new (unused) lids

1. Remove the core from the tomatoes and cut them into 1-inch dice. Slice the garlic cloves thinly. Chop the onion. Peel the apples and remove the core. Cut the apples into 1-inch dice. Cut the jalapenos in half and remove the seeds. Chop the jalapenos very finely. Wear disposable gloves to do this, or wash hands thoroughly afterwards to avoid skin and eye irritation. Peel and finely chop the ginger.

2. Crush the peppercorns, allspice and cardamom in a mortar.

3. Mix all ingredients in a non-corrosive pot (no aluminum) and mix well. Cover and refrigerate for 8 hours.

4. Slowly bring the mix to a boil. Cook uncovered for 20 minutes. Fill into sterilized canning jars using a slotted spoon, as you don’t want to fill the jars with too much liquid but make sure the chutney is fully immersed. You will have about 1 to 2 cups of cooking liquid left over; discard. Close jars with brand new lids and bands immediately and process in boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

5. Remove from the water onto damp kitchen towels. Let rest 24 hours before storing the jars in a cool place away from the light.

Makes 5 half-pint jars