Straight or Spiced Up with Harissa, North African 'Leblebi' Soup from Twelve Recipes

While many cookbooks pile up the recipes on us, Cal Peternell, a chef of Chez Panisse in Twelve Recipes (William Morrow, October 2014) scales things back and keeps it humanly manageable.

Late October- early November cooler evenings call for warm soups.

Here's one you can serve straight or spiced up.


This North African soup combines a simple stew of onion, cilantro, and spiced chickpeas with
toasted bread chunks, turning humble to sublime, especially if you set a poached or hard-boiled egg on top. Liam and I like it for a satisfying after-school snack, even for 2 or 3 days running. I put a spoonful of spicy harissa and a sprinkle of capers on mine. Liam takes his straight. We try to say “We love leblebi!” three times fast, with full mouths and true hearts.

4 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon paprika
Crushed red pepper flakes
½ cup roughly chopped cilantro stems and leaves
2 garlic cloves, sliced or chopped
¾ cup chopped or grated tomatoes or ½ cup roasted tomato puree (page 184)
6 cups cooked chickpeas, with their liquid (2½ cups dried)
Small handful of Rustic Oily Croutons (page 25) per bowl
1 poached (page 33) or hard-boiled (page 30) egg per bowl
Ground cumin (optional)
Good-quality extra-virgin olive oil (optional)
Capers (optional)
Harissa sauce (opposite; optional)

12 recipes

Heat a soup pot over high heat. Add the oil, then the onion and salt. Stir, lower the heat, and cover the pot. Check and stir after a few minutes, letting the liquid on the lid drip back into the pot to keep things steamy. Lower the heat if there is any browning going on, and re-cover.

Cook like this until the onion is tender, about 15 minutes. Add the cumin, paprika, red pepper flakes, cilantro, and garlic and stir for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes to stop the garlic from browning and cook for a couple minutes more, stirring occasionally. Add the chickpeas and enough of their cooking liquid to cover by 2 inches, raise the heat, and bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Put 2 ladles of soup in a blender or food mill and puree (careful—it’s hot). Return to the soup pot and stir in to thicken the leblebi slightly.

Taste for seasonings and add water or any reserved cooking liquid if it’s too thick.

To serve, put some croutons in each soup bowl. Ladle in the leblebi and top with a poached egg or a halved hard-boiled egg. Sprinkle with a little ground cumin and oil and capers if you like, and pass a bowl of harissa sauce to spoon over at the table.

Tubes of prepared harissa, like some kind of practical joke toothpaste, can be found at Middle
Eastern markets. At Asian markets, I buy sambal oelek—the chili paste that comes in a little jar with a green top and a gold label with a red rooster on it—and make a quick harissa by stirring 3 tablespoons of it with 1 or more pounded garlic cloves and 6 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil.

For a more nuanced harissa sauce, mix 2 tablespoons paprika or any other mild chili powder with enough hot water to make a thick paste, about 3 tablespoons. Stir in 2 tablespoons pounded garlic and 3 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil. I often want a splash of red wine vinegar in there and sometimes will add some ground cumin and cayenne if it needs heating up. A tablespoon or two of currants or raisins, plumped for 10 minutes in hot water, adds a sweet counterpoint.

(* Recipe excerpted from  Twelve Recipes by Cal Peternell -William Morrow, October 2014) 

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