Knock-em-dead Harissa sauce!

Don’t come fly with me…

A few weeks back I was chatting with a friend who’s a pilot (as I was once) and we traded stories about our mistakes of judgment that could have had nasty consequences. His was relatively moderate; mine wasn’t.

I was a senior in college, member of the college flying club, and I’d recently passed all the tests to get my pilot’s license – which enabled me to take on passengers. Our plane was a 1964 Piper Cherokee 140 – a “two-plus-two” seater with a fairly wimpy 140 horsepower engine. The plane is meant mostly to be a trainer. It could take up to three passengers, but only under certain conditions: their combined weight, air temperature, humidity… Cool dry air is best for flying. Hot and humid air is the worst.

It was a very hot and humid muggy day in early June, and somehow I had roped three college friends into doing an aerial tour of the campus. Two of them were football players (one was named “Moose”). You get the idea. Two of them packed themselves into the back seats, and Moose rode shotgun up front.

In such circumstances, pilots are supposed to calculate “weight and balance” – what the load is, where they sit in the plane, what the temperature and humidity are. If I’d done this and studied the 140’s weight and balance chart, I never would’ve flown that day. I simply told myself, sure, we’ll be all right, what the heck, let’s go.

Typically a Cherokee 140 gets off the ground in about 500 feet or so in cool, dry air. With me as pilot, the airplane ate up 4,500 feet of runway before nosing tentatively skyward, then climbed at the rate of about 100 feet a minute (way too slow – normal climb rate is 500 feet per minute)) until we eventually leveled out at some 1500 feet altitude. Actually, we didn’t level out very well – we were tossed around by unstable air turbulence like a ping pong ball. I did one wide circle over the university, looked at Moose’s pea-green face, and headed back for the airport to get this over with and release my passengers from their few minutes of seriously doubting my sanity.

Usually, landing is done with the engine barely idling and with three notches of flaps, at a fairly slow speed – around 60 mph or so. I came in to the runway (a 5000 footer) under full throttle and two notches of flaps in the wings to keep the plane from hitting too hard. We were gong to land pretty fast – I’d already figured that one out – but darned if it wasn’t a pretty soft touchdown when we finally hit the runway. And there was plenty of tarmac to slow down and exit safely to a taxiway, where I killed the engine and announced like an idiot, “For awhile there I wasn’t sure we were gonna make it.” Chutzpah!

Moose got out first, went to a grassy edge, and lost his lunch. Another guy did the same. And for the rest of my flying career (some three more years) I was considerably more careful.

But in the end, I came to believe I was not reliable enough as a pilot to continue. A lapse in judgment as dangerous as the one you just read could theoretically happen again. No more flying. That’s it.

I think as get older we become instinctively more cautious – the primal urge to protect ourselves, avoid hazards, and live as long as we can in peace and safety. I look back on this college flying experience – a hugely overweight aircraft on a hot and sticky day -and still shudder at the memory. There. I got the story out. Don’t come fly with me.

And now:

Make some jars of gustatory joy…

Harissa sauce – a tongue-taunting blend of dried cayenne peppers, garlic, olive oil and spices – is a staple in Mediterranean cooking and a constant little jar of joy in our fridge. Enjoy new taste sensations with a small amount of harissa in pasta sauce or chili, on burgers, in a steak marinade, with scrambled eggs… the list is endless if you like some fireworks shooting off in your mouth.

To make about 20 ounces – or 1 1/4 pints – you’ll need:

  • small jars with tight lids for storage
  • 4 oz. dried cayenne peppers (or peppers of similar heat on the Scoville scale)
  • 10 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 tbsp. dried mint
  • 1 tbsp. ground coriander
  • 1 tbsp. ground cumin
  • 1 tsp. ground caraway seeds
  • 1/2 tsp. salt

Wearing gloves (you don’t want anything from the cayenne pepper anywhere near your skin or eyes), chop the peppers, put them in a bowl, cover with boiling water, and let soak for 1 hour. Now drain them and put them in a blender/processor with all other ingredients, except start with only 1 tbsp. of oil. Process for about 20 seconds, scrape down the sides of the pitcher, and process again for about 30 seconds. Add 2 more tbsp. oil, process again, and repeat until all the oil is in and you have a thick gooey paste.

Spoon into clean jars, seal, and store in the fridge for up to six months.

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There you have it for now.

Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, humorist, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.