This creamy harissa pasta recipe features a velvety, slightly spicy sauce with a pop of color from fresh kale. Ready in under an hour!
Y'all: THIS PASTA. It's the stuff cozy weeknight dreeeeams are made of. You just need a handful of fridge and pantry staples for this recipe, and it's ultra-easy to customize.
We're working with a very simple pasta sauce here. Tomato pasta and harissa form the main flavor base, while a bit of heavy cream and some reserved pasta water help achieve a rich, silky texture.
Scroll to the recipe card below for a full ingredients list with exact quantities.
This recipe is pretty straightforward, but we want to highlight a few things before you jump in:
- Harissa (pronounced huh-REE-suh) is the star of the show here! This spicy pepper paste is a popular condiment in North African cuisine (its origins are most often attributed to Morocco and Tunisia; it's also prominent in Libya and Algeria). In this recipe, it provides complexity and a bit of spice. Learn more: Discover Harissa and The True Story of Harissa.
- Tomato Paste lends important depth and umami to this sauce. You can use crushed tomatoes or tomato purée in place of the tomato paste if you need to (the sauce will just need to simmer a little longer).
- Heavy Cream thickens our sauce and makes it, well, creamy. It also cuts through some of the acidity from the harissa and tomato paste, which helps the pasta feel richer and more balanced! You can also use half and half here if you prefer.
- Fresh Kale adds a pop of color (plus, y'know, vegetables). Swap it for fresh spinach if you like!
What Kind of Harissa Should I Use?
We use Mina harissa sauces for our recipe testing. They're spicy and complex, with just a bit of texture. We tested this recipe with both their spicy harissa and mild harissa: Each was delicious! If you're not a fan of spice, we recommend using a mild harissa here for a more mellow result.
Harissa is easy to make at home, and there are a ton of variations to suit any palate! This homemade harissa uses dried chiles and store-bought roasted red peppers as the base, while this harissa recipe starts with fresh chili and red bell peppers.
A Note About Harissa
Harissa from different regions, chefs, and brands can vary wildly in spice, flavor, texture, and complexity. Don't be afraid to adjust the amount of harissa in this recipe so the sauce suits your tastes! Depending on the thickness of your harissa, you may also need to add an extra splash of heavy cream or pasta water to your sauce.
Variations and Substitutions
This recipe is very forgiving: It's easy to customize with whatever you have on hand! A few of our favorite riffs:
- Use any type of pasta you like! We love rigatoni here because it feels hearty and luxurious, but this sauce also works with spaghetti, fusilli, penne, you name it!
- Add extra veggies to make this recipe a bit heartier! Peas, broccoli, butter beans, chickpeas, spinach, and cauliflower are all tasty additions.
- Add protein. Chicken (we love using meal prep shredded chicken or a rotisserie chicken from the store), turkey meatballs, Italian sausage (similar to our spicy tomato pasta), shrimp or prawns, and crispy bacon are all good in this pasta recipe!
- Top with shaved or shredded parmesan if you like. You can also add a splash of our favorite parmesan broth to the sauce!
Step by Step Instructions
Cook the Pasta
Boil your rigatoni in a large pot of salted water over medium-high heat. When the pasta is just shy of al dente, reserve a bit of pasta water. Drain the pasta and set it aside. Then, return the pot to the stove and start building the sauce.
Build the Sauce
Start by sautéing a diced shallot with some minced garlic in a bit of oil until soft (Image 1, above). Add tomato paste and harissa (Image 2), then stir everything together.
Add heavy cream to sauce (Image 3, above). Stir well and let the sauce cook for a minute or two until it's fragrant, hot, and just starts to bubble (4).
When the sauce is hot, stir in the fresh chopped kale (Image 5). Let the sauce cook another minute or two, until the kale has wilted down (6).
Pro Tip: The creamy harissa sauce will be very thick at this stage. It may even look like there isn't quite enough to cover all the pasta, but don't worry! When we add our reserved pasta water later on, it will thin the sauce out and coat the noodles perfectly.
Add the Cooked Pasta
Add the cooked, drained rigatoni to the pot with the sauce (Image 7). Stir until the pasta is evenly coated, then add pasta water a little bit at a time (8).
Continue adding pasta water, stirring well between each addition, until you have a smooth, silky sauce that evenly coats every noodle.
Pro Tip: You probably won't need all of your reserved pasta water! Add it a little at a time, and taste as you go. This method can take some practice! You can also see this technique in action in our asparagus goat cheese pasta and chicken spinach pasta.
Let leftover pasta cool completely, then store it in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 4 days. Reheat in a skillet over medium-low heat for best results (the kale reheats better on the stovetop than it does in the microwave!)
We recommend adding a splash of heavy cream or broth (chicken, veggie, or parmesan broth) to the pasta as it reheats after storage. This brings the sauce back to life and helps it stay nice and silky!
A Few FAQs
While there really isn't a perfect substitute for harissa, this general sauce-making method does work well with several other ingredients! Swapping out the harissa will give you a slightly different vibe and flavor profile, but is absolutely possible.
We tested this recipe with diced calabrian chiles, gochujang, and extra tomato paste (with an added pinch of red pepper flakes for heat) in place of the harissa. All of those options made a delicious pasta, although as always, we recommend adjusting the spicy ingredients to suit your tastes.
Like harissa, calabrian chiles and gochujang can vary quite a bit in texture and spice level. When in doubt: Start small, taste as you go, and add extra spice later on if you need to!
It depends on what harissa you use! We tested this creamy spicy pasta recipe with both the spicy and mild red pepper sauce varieties of Mina Harissa. Both were excellent; The spicy version definitely had more of a kick to it. If you like spicy foods, use a spicy harissa! If you're not a spice fan, look for a mild harissa sauce. If you're making homemade harissa, you can also adjust the amount of hot peppers you use to control the spice level more carefully! If you're using a new-to-you harissa, be sure to taste it on its own before you start cooking so you get an idea of any adjustments you may want to make.
Yes - this harissa pasta recipe is amazing as a baked pasta dish! Undercook the pasta by a few minutes, toss with the sauce, then transfer to a baking dish. We recommend adding some extra liquid to the sauce if you plan to bake this pasta - ¼ to ½ cup of chicken broth, parmesan broth, milk, or additional heavy cream - to keep it from drying out in the oven. Top with cheese (we like to use a mix of mozzarella and parmesan) then bake until the cheese is bubbling and lightly browned. See more specific instructions for baking pasta in our red pepper baked ziti recipe!
More Cozy Weeknight Pasta Recipes
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This easy, creamy pasta uses an easy tomato and harissa pasta sauce and plenty of fresh kale.
- 1 pound pasta (we used rigatoni)
- 1 Tablespoon olive oil
- 1 shallot, diced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- ½ cup harissa
- 6 ounces tomato paste (1 small can)
- ½ cup heavy cream
- 3 heaping cups kale, stems removed and roughly chopped
- ½ cup pasta water (see recipe below)
- kosher salt and pepper to taste
- Cook the pasta in a large pot of very salty water until it's just shy of al dente. Use a measuring cup to reserve about ½ cup of the starchy pasta water, then drain the pasta and set it aside.
- Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium heat (I like to use the same pot I just cooked the pasta in). Add shallot and garlic and sauté, stirring occasionally, for 2-4 minutes until shallot has softened and begun to brown.
- Add harissa and tomato paste; stir to combine. Cook another minute or so, until fragrant and warmed through.
- Stir in heavy cream. Let sauce cook for 1-2 minutes, until reaches a low simmer (it will begin to bubble and sputter).
- Add kale. Continue cooking for 1-2 minutes, stirring frequently, until the kale has wilted down. The sauce will seem very thick at this point!
- Add cooked pasta to the sauce and stir to combine. Stir in reserved pasta water a tablespoon at a time until you have a smooth, silky sauce (you may not need it all). Taste pasta, add salt and pepper as needed, then serve immediately.
Substitutions. Swap the kale for fresh spinach. Use gochujang or diced calabrian chili peppers in place of harissa if you can't find any (both are similar in that they're spicy condiments with a pepper base, but the spice level and flavor will be a bit different). Swap the heavy cream for a few scoops of cauliflower purée if you'd like a lighter, dairy-free sauce. Use a regular onion instead of the shallot.
Additions. Add protein (chicken, ground beef, Italian sausage, or shrimp are good here) or extra veggies (peas, broccoli, cauliflower). Top this pasta with fresh basil, parsley, or parmesan cheese if you like. Add a splash of chicken stock or parmesan broth for a thinner, more complex sauce.
What kind of harissa should I use? We tested this recipe with Mina Harissa's Spicy Harissa and Mild Harissa. Both were excellent! For more notes on harissa varieties, be sure to read the full article above.
Adjust the harissa as needed. Harissa can vary wildly in spice level, texture, and complexity between brands and recipes. Adjust the amount of harissa here to suit your palate!
- Serving Size: Serves 4. Nutrition info per serving:
- Calories: 576
- Sugar: 14.1 g
- Sodium: 558.9 mg
- Fat: 11 g
- Carbohydrates: 101.4 g
- Protein: 18.1 g
- Cholesterol: 17 mg
Keywords: pasta, comfort food, spicy