by Barbara Joy Cooley
The summer of splendid isolation is what I call this time, in a deliberate effort to keep my spirits up. In this year of horrors, my husband Tom and I are doing our part by staying home, not allowing the virus to find us. The previous 22 summers of our lives we took ourselves and our computers to Paris, where we summered in the city.
Even if we never return to Paris, that city has changed us in what seems like a thousand little ways. We didn’t drive for those months in Paris, so not driving anywhere much now isn’t so strange for us. In Paris, we learned how to live comfortably enough without air conditioning even when summer turns wickedly hot. Tom loves the French bakery breads so much that I’ve now learned how to make a boule(1) that we’d be pleased to find in a Parisian bakery. We experienced the full range of French cuisine, as well as so many other ethnic cuisines that can be found in the big city.
In Paris, we came to love certain aspects of North African and Middle Eastern cuisine, in particular the vegetables, grilled meats, and – harissa!
Harissa is a chili paste – a condiment made from red bell peppers, red chili peppers, garlic, olive oil, salt, and lemon juice. (See this recipe if you want more complex seasoning.)
On Sundays, holidays, and hot days, we often would walk a little more than a mile to dine at Le Tipaza, a beautiful restaurant featuring very affordable North African cuisine on the rue Saint Charles in Paris. The servers welcomed us warmly, always remembering us and where we liked to sit: deep in the decorative dining room, where we could feel the air conditioning and see most of the intricately carved plaster and elaborate tile work. Right away, the white shirted, black tied servers would bring us olives and veggies to nibble on. Soon after came the condiments, including harissa.
The harissa at Le Tipaza was more textured, richer, darker, spicier, and thicker than most. I would use it to add more zing to the tagine or couscous that I had ordered, or I’d slather a little on a bit of tender, juicy grilled lamb.
We had many dozens of relaxing, delicious dinners at Le Tipaza; there was never a bad evening for us in that welcoming place.
Spending this summer without harissa was not possible. I could make it, but a nice harissa is sold under the brand name of Mina, in either mild or spicey. We order all of our groceries in, but I found it was not possible to order harissa online from Jerry’s or Bailey’s on Sanibel. Mina harissa is available on Amazon, but at twice the cost that it should be. I did find Mina harissa online at Publix/Shipt, but it was less expensive at ThriveMarket.com. Thrive Market also has many other wonderful, hard-to-find food items at reasonable prices.
Harissa is more than a condiment; I use it as an ingredient for other concoctions, such as chick pea/harissa soup. I think of it as an essential part of North African and Middle Eastern comfort food. When I taste it, I think of those leisurely summer walks to Le Tipaza, those dozens of delicious dinners, and the leisurely walks home in the darkening streets of Paris, Eiffel Tower in view.
(1) A simple, round loaf of French country bread with a crunchy crust and a flavorful “crumb.” The crumb is the inside of the loaf of bread. I use Jim Lahey’s No Knead Bread recipe, except that I use 3 and ¼ cups artisan flour and one and a third cups water.