Mediterranean Pasta with chard and olives in a spicy harissa sauce

November 16, 2008 at 4:43 am (101 cookbooks, A (4 stars, love, favorite), Dark leafy greens, Pasta, Quick weeknight recipe, Starches) ()

The photo of the harissa spaghettini on 101cookbooks is enticing. Moreover, the recipe includes both greens and plenty of spice, so I immediately added it to my “to try” list. I can’t find that lovely tender dinosaur kale shown in the photo here in Germany, so I used chard instead. I made a few other adjustments as well, transforming this recipe from a Moroccan recipe to a trans-Mediterranean one.  The pasta and chard and parmigiano represent Italy, the kalamata olives come from Greece, and the harissa paste represents North Africa.


  • 8 ounces whole wheat spaghetti
  • 1.25 – 1.5 pounds washed, destemmed chard (about 2 pounds in the store I think)
  • 4 large cloves garlic [originally 3 medium cloves]
  • a big pinch of salt
  • 2 tablespoons harissa paste + cumin (1? tsp.)
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil [originally 4 Tbs.]
  • 1/2 cup kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
  • zest of two lemons (plus some lemon juice for the table, for those who want more acid)
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts [originally 1/2 cup]
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • parmigiana-reggiano to taste (optional)


  1. First make the sauce.  Peel the garlic, and place it in a mortar with a pinch of salt.  Crush the garlic to a paste, then move it to a small bowl.  Add the harissa and olive oil and mix to combine.  Taste and add more cumin or a pinch of sugar if desired.
  2. Fill a large (8 quart) stockpot with water and bring to a boil.  Measure out your spaghetti or other whole wheat pasta. While the water is heating, wash the chard and remove the thick stems.  Chop the chard into ribbons.
  3. When the water comes to a boil, add the pasta and a generous amount of salt.  Cook the pasta until just before al dente, then add the chard ribbons and cook for about a minute longer, until the chard is bright green and soft, then drain immediately. (Save a bit of the pasta cooking water in case you need to thin your sauce down.)
  4. While the pasta is cooking, pit the olives and chop them.  Zest two lemons. Cut the bell pepper into long thin strips, then cut the strips into halves or thirds (depending on how big your pepper is).
  5. After the pasta and greens are drained, put your empty stockpot back over medium-high heat.  Add the pine nuts.  Watch carefully, stirring constantly, until the pine nuts are toasted and speckled with light brown.  Remove the pan from the heat, and add the harissa sauce, the olives, and the lemon zest.  Stir once then add the pasta and greens.
  6. Serve immediately.  Add parmesan to each bowl if desired.

This recipe serves four as a main dish.  If everyone is hungry and it’s all you’re serving, it might only make enough for three.  With lots of sides you could stretch it to five or six.

My notes:

The original recipe called for a small bunch of kale. I wasn’t sure how much that was, and ended up using 1 pound of chard (measured after washing and destemming).  It definitely wasn’t enough greens, so the next time I used 1 pound 5 ounces of prepped greens, and that was a much better amount.  Slightly more chard wouldn’t have been bad, but I wouldn’t have wanted much less.

Derek likes garlic so we added more garlic than the original recipe called for, but the sauce didn’t seem particularly garlicky. The first time I made this recipe I used the zest of two lemons, and couldn’t really taste it.  The second time we only had one lemon, but I could occasionally taste the zest, and when I did it was delicious.  It’s not essential to the recipe, but adds a nice flavor when you can actually taste it.  The original recipe called for oil-cured black olives, but Derek asked me to get kalamata instead since those are his favorite.  The kalamata olives went well we thought.

The original recipe called for 4 Tbs. of olive oil, but given all the other fat in the dish that seemed a bit extravagant, and I reduced it to 3 Tbs.  The dish was still plenty rich, and I might try reducing it even a bit further, maybe adding in a bit of pasta water to thin it down.  When I added the 1/2 cup of pine nuts that the recipe originally called for, both Derek and I thought that there were way too many pine nuts.  They added too much sweetness to the dish.  Using only 1/3 cup of pine nuts seemed much more balanced, considering the other amounts.  Adding a bit of grated parmesan tones down the spice a tad, and adds some depth to the bright flavors of the sauce, but is by no means essential.

I’d like to try adding a cup or two of chickpeas to this recipe, to really turn it into a one pot meal.

Update July 2012:

I made this recipe today but decided to use my mini-processor instead of a mortar and pestle.  Bad idea.  I had to add about 2 Tbs. of water to get it to actually puree the garlic, and I lost tons of the sauce to the sides and top of the processor.  Definitely stick with the mortar and pestle.

I used 8 ounces of pasta but I only had 10 ounces of chard this time so I also added in 1 red bell pepper (about 200g or 7oz).  I like the extra color and crunch the pepper adds.  I added it with the olives and let it cook a minute or two before adding the pasta. I also threw in about 8oz of seitan to make the dish a bit more substantial.  The seitan wasn’t all that noticeable in the final dish.

Depending on the brand of harissa, I often add more cumin to this recipe, and sometimes I use more harissa (3 or even 4 Tbs.). You really have to taste the sauce to decide how much to use, and whether it needs more cumin. It depends a lot on the brand of harissa you’re using.

Update March 2014:

We made this recipe yesterday with 12 ounces of pasta, 11 ounces of chard leaves, and 11 ounces of curly kale leaves. Even though the original recipe calls for kale, I’d never made it with kale before. I quite liked it! It adds more texture than the chard does. Since we added more pasta I used 1.5 bell peppers, and we were running out of pine nuts so only used about 3.5 Tbs. rather than the 5.33 the recipe calls for. Despite the extra pasta (and no concomitant increase in sauce), the pasta was very flavorful. It wasn’t particularly spicy, but we enjoyed it a lot. We served it with a very tasty coriander and green pea soup, which I’ll try to blog soon.

Pine nuts are expensive, and they’re not that flavorful, so I think next time I’ll try swapping some or all of the pine nuts for pepitas. I also want to try adding some chickpeas or white beans. Maybe the really big white beans?


  1. austingardener said,

    Having never heard of harissa sauce , I looked it up. It seems like a chile sauce with coriander and caraway seeds. Have you ever made it or do you just buy it?

  2. captious said,

    I have made harissa sauce before, but not in a long time. When I made this recipe I used store bought paste. The first one was quite good, but the second brand we tried was more bitter and spicier and didn’t have enough cumin.

  3. Miso harissa delicata squash with kale and pepitas | The captious vegetarian said,

    […] always loves what he calls “harissa pasta“, so I figured I should try out the one other harissa recipe from 101 cookbooks.  This […]

  4. hanaviolin11 said,

    Made my own version of this based on what I had in the fridge. Sauce had a jar of sundried tomatoes, a tablespoon of siracha, teaspoon of cumin, four cloves of garlic, 2 tablespoons of walnuts, 3 tablespoons of lemon juice, 3 tablespoons of olive oil, 2 tablespoons of fresh basil, salt to taste, and enough water to make it blend well in the food processor. Instead of peppers I used cherry tomatoes. Instead of olives I used a jar of capers. Really delicious! Lovely way to use my chard from the farm : )

  5. What to do with a lot of lemon or lime zest? | The captious vegetarian said,

    […] with chard and olives […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: