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The Other Harissa
Lamb or chicken with wheatberries
I remember vividly a time in Vermont in September 1973: I’d just returned from hitchhiking cross country, Salvador Allende was being overthrown and killed in Chile (on September 11, no less) …and I made harissa for the first – and, until recently, just about the only – time. The recipe came from “Vladimir Estragon” (a pen name for the great Geoffrey Stokes) in his Village Voice column, “Waiting for Dessert.” (People were perhaps more playful back then.)
You will think harissa is hot sauce, and you’re right. But it’s also the name of an Armenian dish (one that appears around the Middle East, also spelled ‘hareesa’) of chicken or lamb cooked with wheatberries – and not much else – until the meat melts into the wheat and the whole thing becomes what amounts to a savory porridge with just enough chew to make it interesting. The dominating flavors are extremely subtle: your meat, your wheat, maybe some Aleppo or Urfa or another mild chile, garlic, salt, and pepper.
I thought about that dish for forty years; I really did. Not daily, obviously, but occasionally. I wrote about it for another project recently, and I got a craving.
Last week, with that same barley I used for that black socca and some pieces of lamb that I did not want hanging around the freezer until fall, I decided it was time. I’ll only say a couple of things here and then get to the recipe: One, barley works just fine; it was delicious. Two, you need meaty but bony meat: The lamb cuts I used were perfect, but so was the whole chicken I used in ’73. Three, the pressure cooker cuts the time from four to six hours to around two; in any case, you’re going to have to use your judgment. And four, I couldn’t resist a few garlic chives at the end for color and flavor. Obviously, you can add whatever you like, but I do recommend making it at least once with a few additions because the meat broth flavors the grain so beautifully on its own.
It’s delicious, unusual, and simple if time-consuming.
Makes 4 servings
Time: At least 3 hours
1 medium lamb shank
1 pound bone-in lamb neck (Alternatively, use a whole chicken. You need not bother to cut it up, but remove the innards. Or use 3 or 4 leg quarters. )
1 cup whole barley or wheat
5 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon Urfa chile, or more
Chives or another herb for garnish
1. In a pressure cooker (or, yes Instant Pot) or large saucepan (I used the Perfect Pot, which I do love), combine all the ingredients (except the garnish) with abundant water to cover; at least twice the level of the meat and grain. Put the lid on and bring to a boil, then simmer forever, stirring occasionally, and adding water as necessary. (Alternatively, use a pressure cooker, setting it for an hour for the first run.)
2. When the meat is very tender, falling off the bone by itself, let the mixture cool until you can handle it. (You can hasten the cooling by pouring the mixture out onto a platter; or, if you’re using lamb, you can likely pull out the meat and bone with tongs.) Remove any part of the meat that you don’t want to eat later – bones, of course, but gristle and excess fat, if there is such a thing. (With chicken, it’s a little trickier; you probably want to get rid of the skin, and cartilage.)
3. Return to the pot. If using the pressure cooker, make sure there’s adequate water, and set it for 30 minutes. If a conventional pot, again make sure there’s enough water and continue to simmer and stir. After a while, you can mash with a potato masher or puree a bit of the mixture (not all) with a stick blender to make it creamier, but go easy on that, and bear in mind that it’s not at all necessary.
4. The dish is done when it’s creamy and the meat is barely discernable. Taste and add whatever seasoning is lacking, then garnish and serve. This keeps well for re-heating of course.