Spicy Harissa Pickled Carrots
This is my favorite time of the year. Some people look forward to snatching those last rays of warm summer sunshine and lazing around on a beach or dock. I prefer to hulk over a boiling vat of water, sweating and flitting from one cutting board to another, canning the ripest, juiciest, freshest summer fruits and vegetables that I can find. A few weeks ago I entered into what I affectionately call my annual “extravaCANza”, and the 61 jars of pickles, chutneys, jams and poached fruits which are now stocking the pantry will keep me sated and happy for months to come. It may seem ludicrous to hunker in front of a steaming pot in August, but I say that it is well worth the effort when you bite into a sweet, plump, juicy preserved peach on a cold February day and taste that little bit of summer.
Oh yes, and it’s not like I didn’t have help with the canning. There was at least one other member of this household who was eager to participate, invited or otherwise.
I’ll share a few of this year’s recipes with you, including lavender and honey poached peaches, a small batch of fig and rose jam and blackberry balsamic vinegar. But first, I have to tell you about these carrots. I love pickled carrots (well, frankly I love pickled anything), but these are something else. These are something special.
We had a couple of friends over last Tuesday and, with nothing prepared, I scavenged through the kitchen to put on a paltry spread of warm spinach and artichoke dip (liberated from the freezer), fresh salsa (also part of extravaCANza), and an assortment of homemade pickles, including these spicy harissa carrots. Our friend James, who is always game to try something new (bless his heart) took a small nibble and paused. He chewed thoughtfully, swallowed slowly, and said, “So…I don’t know how to say this.”
“You said that these were pickled carrots?”
….Yes? Or should I say no? Crikey, I can’t say no. What, am I going to pretend that they’re woody orange cucumbers or something? Might as well just go with it. You can’t please ‘em all.
“It’s just that….well, I really like pickles, most pickles, in fact. But, well, I’ve never had a pickled carrot before. So I don’t really know how to say this. But…”
“….I think that this is the best pickled THING that I have ever eaten.”
“No, really. I’m not trying to blow smoke here or anything –”
although the carrots are spicy enough that he probably could have…..
” — but these are really, really…..they’re just REALLY good.”
Aw, shucks. Over the last two weeks we have already eaten our way (with a little bit of help) through three jars of these crunchy beauties, and I dare say that I’ll have to make another batch before the summer is over.
Now then, if at this point you’re still scratching your head and wondering what the heck “harissa” is, I suppose we should start there. I sometimes toss steamed carrots with a bit of olive oil and harissa (the inspiration for these gems), and each time Mike says, “So tell me again…what exactly is ‘harissa’?” At which point I roll my eyes and mutter something about chili sauce. For you, however, since I haven’t explained it before: Harissa is a Middle Eastern condiment made with a base of hot red chili peppers, garlic, a variety of key spices like cumin and caraway, occasionally some sugar and often a fair bit of salt for preservation. Harissa can be dolloped as-is beside grilled meats or chicken, used in marinades or swirled into sauces and soups. If you haven’t had crispy skinned harissa grilled chicken, well, you haven’t lived.
Harissa is usually easy enough to find jarred or canned from a Middle Eastern grocery store, but for this recipe I recommend that you make your own. It really takes very little effort and you can control the amount of flavor from each element – chili, garlic and spices. I have bought several brands of harissa before in the past (they’re nice to have on hand for convenience), but none of them had the earthy, spicy flavor of homemade. In fact, more often than not, they either taste “hot” or “salty hot”. You know that you can do better than that.
Spicy Harissa Pickled Carrots
Makes 4-5 pints
- 4 lb fresh, crunchy carrots
- 10 – 20 dried chili peppers
- 8 cloves garlic
- 1 tbsp coriander seed
- 1 tbsp cumin seed
- 2 tsp caraway seed
- 6 cups pickling vinegar (5%)
- 2 cups filtered water
- 1.5 cups granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup canning salt
Notes on the ingredients: Rather than making you scroll through star (*) after star (*), why don’t I just lay it all out there? Your carrots have to be fresh. I mean crunchy, recently unearthed, fresh and seasonal carrots. An old carrot which is a bit bendy will be soft and have the texture of a mattress pad when it is processed. As for the chili peppers, some like it hot and that’s the group that I fall into. Ergo, 20 dried cayenne peppers it was! If you want a bit of spice but like moderation, 10 cayenne peppers would be fine. If you’re going to use another dried chili with less heat, adjust the number accordingly. I wouldn’t recommend using 10 small fiery dried Thai birds eye peppers instead of 20 cayenne, even though the heat might be equivalent, because your jars just wouldn’t look as pretty without little red scraps floating to and fro in the brine. As for the brine, I used Heinz white pickling vinegar which has a 5% acetic acid measure. If you’re using a more acidic pickling vinegar then decrease the amount just slightly and sub in water to tone down the sourness. Filtered water and canning salt are preferred for a clean, clear product. If you use iodized or kosher salt then the brine may be cloudy or unpleasant. Make sure that your canning jars and clean and sterilized with fresh lids and ring molds before you begin.
Call me paranoid, but I’m fairly certain that my local farmer’s market gets some of the produce from a sunny Southern US state and just dusts it with dirt so that it looks more authentic. These carrots, however, were sold to me by a local gal who had the fingernails to match, so I trust their authenticity.
Pour boiling water over the dried chilis in a shallow bowl and set them aside to rehydrate for 20-30 minutes. Again, the 20 cayenne that I used will make a pickle that is hot-hot-hot! If you’re not a fan of the heat you can scale it back as you see fit.
Toast the spices in a dry skillet over medium high heat until they are popping, fragrant and just starting to brown (about 1-2 minutes).
Drain the water off the chili peppers and shake them dry. Pluck off the stem ends but leave the seeds intact. Peel the garlic and chop the cloves into several smaller pieces to help things along. Using a small food processor, pulse together the chili peppers, garlic and toasted spices until they are combined but still a little bit chunky.
Peel the carrots and cut them into batons of roughly the same size, each about 1/3″ square by 4″ long. In terms of length, they should be tall enough to come up to 3/4″ from the top of your canning jars.
Heat the vinegar, water, sugar and salt in a fairly large pot over medium heat until it is simmering and the salt/sugar are dissolved. Keep this mixture simmering as you get ready to pack the jars.
Layer about a tablespoon of harissa in the bottom of each clean and sterilized jar. Pack the carrots in densely until your jars are evenly filled and then divide the remaining harissa over top.
Pour the vinegar brine over your carrots until it comes to 1/2″ away from the top of the jar. Wipe the lip clean with a towel and seal with a fresh cap and ring mold.
Heat process the jars for 10 minutes. If you are a novice to canning, “heat processing” requires that you take a canner (or very, very large pot) with a canning rack on the bottom, fill it with water and bring it to a boil. Nestle your sealed jars on the rack, being sure that they are covered with 1-2″ of boiling water. You “process” them by boiling the jars for the specified time; in this case, 10 minutes.
Carefully remove the jars from the canner when ready and set them aside to cool. After a few minutes you should hear that glorious characteristic “pop” that means your jars are vacuum sealed and ready to go on the shelf. Do give the lids a final quick tighten before you do because sometimes they loosen during the boil.
Try not to eat them all at once. The first bite is garlicky, tangy but slightly sweet and earthy with spice. The aftertaste, however, is a fiery punch in the gums to remind you that these ain’t your grandma’s pickled carrots. By the third or fourth carrot that you chow down on, which is inevitable after the first taste, you will be hooked. Trust me. Or rather, trust James because he knows a good pickle when he sees one.