At first glance, this may look like an ordinary penne bolognese. However, there is neither tomato sauce nor meat in it. Don’t despair, this dish is extremely flavorful. In place of the traditional bolognese sauce is a harissa-based pesto that is sure to entice even the most die-hard carnivore.
I’ve made red penne harissa many times, even brought it to a couple of potlucks, and it has been a resounding hit each and every time. The thing about this dish is that it tastes great warm or at room temperature. Moreover, it tastes just as good a day or two after the fact, given that the flavors have been allowed to develop a bit (just add the greens prior to serving). I like to use whole wheat penne and cook it al dente or even slightly less than al dente, so that when you mix it with the pesto, it remains firm. Overcooked pasta is never good. This dish was inspired by Marcus Samuelsson [A Soul of a New Cuisine]. However, I lightened it up a bit, with the omission of the potatoes and the addition of tomatoes, and an ample dose of arugula and basil.
Red Harissa Penne
Harissa, a North African condiment, is the base for the pesto, which is combined with shallots, garlic, almonds, and olive oil. There are many variations of harissa, some made with whole dried chiles, others with ground chile powder. This particular version is made with a combination of ground ancho and guajillo chile powder, along with ground caraway seeds and fresh mint.
Harissa spice blend
1/3 cup ancho chile powder
1 tablespoon guajillo chile powder
1 tablespoon hot smoked paprika
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Note: This is a mild chile powder, as ancho imparts more of a fruity note without the heat found in most chiles.
To make the harissa:
1/2 cup chile powder
8 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon ground caraway
1 tablespoon chopped mint
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
In a small saucepan, heat the olive oil and garlic over low heat, until the garlic softens about 4 to 5 minutes.
In a separate bowl combine the remaining ingredients. Add the oil and garlic and stir to combine.
You can make the harissa ahead of time if you like. It will keep for two weeks in the refrigerator in an airtight container (but it’s usually devoured within a couple of days).
Red Penne with Harissa
1 pound whole-wheat penne
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup whole almonds
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 shallot, thinly sliced
1/3 cup harissa
Juice of one lemon
Sea salt to taste
1 small box cherry tomatoes, quartered
Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat in a medium skillet. Add the almonds, shallot, and garlic. Cook, about 8 to 10 minutes, stirring regularly, until the almonds are golden brown.
Transfer the almond mixture to a food processor. Add the harissa, lemon juice, 7 tablespoons of olive oil, and salt, and process until smooth.
Heat a little more olive oil to the skillet and add the tomatoes and a pinch of salt, cook, for about 6 to 7 minutes, until the tomatoes are soft.
Bring a pot of water with salt to a boil. Cook penne until al dente. Drain and transfer to a large bowl. Mix in the harissa/nut mixture, along with the cooked tomatoes. Stir, so that the harissa is evenly distributed.
Place the red penne onto a large serving platter, and top with the chopped arugula and chopped basil, and a drizzle of flavorful extra virgin olive oil.