Carrot and Harissa Combine Nicely for Liba Falafel Soup

Use a rainbow of colorful fresh carrots and make your own harissa for a perfect winter soup.


Photo by Lori Eanes

What’s up, Doc? A lot, actually. The carrot is one of the most ubiquitous and versatile of vegetables. Available year-round, it can be used as a base for sauces and stews, incorporated into cakes, caramelized, juiced, or simply eaten raw, Bugs Bunny-style.

Gail Lillian, owner and executive chef of Liba Falafel, offers them as a side topping at her popular downtown Oakland salad bar in the form of a refreshing Moroccan carrot salad. But one of her favorite preparations — particularly in the cooler winter months — is to use them in soup.

As a general rule for her rotating weekly soup special, Lillian prefers to let the flavor of the main vegetables be “the star” as opposed to adding complex spices and multiple layers of flavor. “I find them cloying, an assault on the taste buds,” she said.

Rather, she tends to treat soups simply, lifting up the natural flavor of high-quality veggies with onion and garlic while adding just a hint of complexity with a modest topping. Her carrot-harissa soup is an exception in that it contains a second strong flavor component. The harissa — a North African paste made from roasted and dried red chili peppers and spices — provides a distinct spicy-savory note that she said blends beautifully with the natural sweetness of the carrots.

Lillian does recommend going easy on the harissa to allow the flavor of the carrot to be the main driver in the dish. The quality and freshness of the main ingredient is paramount. Browse Bay Area farmers markets in the winter months, and you’ll find a veritable rainbow of colors, including yellow, white, red, and purple. Carrie Sullivan, culinary programs manager for the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, estimated there are 30 different varietals available with varying hues, textures, and sweetness. 

When picking out carrots, look out for vibrant ones with no obvious signs of wilting or rot —easier to determine if the greens are still attached. Sullivan recommends separating the greens from the roots and storing them separately in plastic bags in the refrigerator. They can be used as a substitute for parsley and make pesto, chimichurri, or salsa verde. Come to think of it, that might just make a nice topping for carrot soup.

Liba Falafel, 380 17th St., Oakland, 415-806-5422, Carrie Sullivan runs market education programs at Jack London Square farmers market on Sundays, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.


Liba Falafel’s Carrot-Harissa Soup

2 tablespoons olive oil or neutral cooking oil

1 yellow onion, diced

4-5 garlic cloves, minced

1.5-2 pounds carrots, peeled and roughly chopped into 2-inch pieces

Water, roughly 1.5 quart

1-2 teaspoons harissa, prepared or purchased (see recipe below)

Salt, to taste



Heat oil over low-medium heat in a stockpot. Add onion and garlic, stirring frequently to soften but not brown. Add carrots. Cover with enough water to allow carrots to be fully submerged. You can add more water if needed as they cook, but best to adjust water after the soup is blended, so you don’t have a watery soup. Simmer until carrots break apart easily with a fork. Remove from heat. Blend with immersion blender, or carefully transfer contents to a food processor to blend until smooth. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons harissa, depending on your taste. Add more water to get — as we say at Liba — soup, not baby-food, consistency. Add salt to taste.

Garnish ideas: toasted walnut and parsley, feta, mixed herbs.



3 tablespoons crushed dried chilies

1.5 teaspoons caraway seed

1.5 teaspoons ground coriander

1.5 teaspoons ground cumin

1 16-ounce jar roasted red pepper (or homemade) (roughly 2 cups)


Cover the crushed chilies in small bowl with enough hot water to submerge but not float. Grind caraway seeds in spice grinder. Add caraway and other spices to crushed chilies. No need to mix. Let spices sit for 30 minutes, allowing chilies to soften.

If using jarred roasted red peppers, press peppers to release and discard water. Combine red peppers and spice mixture in food processor to result in smooth sauce, though not all chilies will break down into smaller pieces.

This hot sauce is derived from North African recipes, often in paste form, and sometimes presenting as a sauce in a base of roasted red peppers, like ours. This will yield plenty of harissa for other uses. It freezes well, too. Use leftover on rice dishes, grilled foods, sandwiches, or eggs.

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