Cherry Tomato Sauce (spicy Moroccan-style)

Sweet cherry tomatoes and Moroccan spices come together in 20 minutes to make a rich, rustic, spicy cherry tomato sauce that you just want to put on everything!

Check out the different ways to use this delicious sauce. 

cherry tomato sauce in skillet

I had the pleasure of hosting an online cooking class with Bonnie Stern. Bonnie is an award winning cookbook author, cooking show host, culinary cultural tour guide and national food columnist.

This simple cherry tomato sauce is Bonnie’s recipe. Or part of it. In the class, our group poached fish in the sauce to make Chraime, a North African spicy tomato sauce cooked with fish. It was scrumptious which is why I am sharing it. The sauce part.

Why make this recipe

  • First and foremost, it’s delicious.
  • It’s incredibly versatile (see all the ways to use it below)
  • It’s a great way to use those sweet summer cherry tomatoes during tomato season
  • And it’s quick and easy to make in 3 easy steps – 20 minutes – with no peeling or chopping tomatoes!

Bottom line: It is a simple, easy, colorful, versatile and super flavorful sauce. And…. it’s low calorie, low fat, gluten free and vegan.  As usual, lots of variations are possible. Not bad for one little spicy sauce!

Ingredient notes – tailored to your taste

cherry tomatoes, oil, onions, garlic, jalapeno, seasonings, water, tomato paste, harissa paste

Most of the spices can be found in your local grocery store. You might have to source Harissa paste at a store that sells Middle Eastern products. Or use a substitute.

Here are several variations and substitutions you can use for this recipe. 

Spiciness and Seasoning

  • Chili peppers:
    • Instead of a jalapeno, use a cubanelle pepper (mild) or anaheim (mild-medium) for less heat. Here is a great guide to chili peppers and their level of heat from mild to super hot.
    • Or skip the chili pepper altogether if you’re not a fan.
  • Harissa paste:
    • If you can’t find harissa paste, replace it with with sriracha, chili garlic sauce or red pepper flakes.
  • Seasoning:
    • Try adding a pinch of cinnamon to the sauce – a common North African spice.
    • If you don’t have or like cumin, replace it with half the amount of ground coriander, caraway seeds or chili powder.
    • You can substitute turmeric with half the amount of ground ginger, dry mustard or cumin.
    • Garnish with fresh herbs like parsley, fresh basil or more cilantro


  • Cherry tomatoes tend to be sweeter than larger tomatoes, but for this recipe, you can use any in-season chopped fresh tomatoes of any color.
  • Cherry tomatoes may take a little less time to break down than grape tomatoes which are also fine for this sauce.

Tomato paste

  • The tomato paste isn’t absolutely necessary. I always use it, though, as I find it amps up the flavor and richness.


  • I know some people hate it. I find it adds depth and flavor without being overwhelming in this dish. My husband never notices and he doesn’t like cilantro.
  • If you’re still reluctant, use parsley instead.


  1. Control the heat with the amount of harissa you use (or a substitute). If you overdid the heat, add a splash of heavy cream to create a mellower creamy sauce
  2. If your tomatoes are watery, add less water.
  3. Add a pinch of sugar if needed to balance the bitterness in some tomato pastes.
  4. I like to leave the tomato sauce a bit chunky. To get it smoother, cook it longer and smoosh the tomatoes more.

Step by step

cooked onions and seasonings in pan
Sauté onions in olive oil in a large nonstick skillet. Add garlic, seasonings, harissa, tomato paste and stir for 1-2 minutes.
cherry tomatoes and sauce ingredients in pan
Add tomatoes, chopped jalapeno and water.
partially cooked cherry tomato sauce in pan
Simmer tomatoes until they burst, stirring occasionally. Help them burst with the back of a slotted spoon or spatula (careful of the squirts!). Cook until thickened.
cherry tomato sauce in pan with cilantro
Add cilantro. Taste and adjust seasonings e.g. more spice, salt, cilantro, a pinch of sugar. If too thick, add more water.
close up of cherry tomato sauce
For a nice finish, add a small pad of butter or drizzle on a little bit of extra virgin olive oil.

How to use this fresh tomato sauce

On ice cream! Just kidding. But it is amazing on so many dishes. Here are a few suggestions.

  • Over cooked pasta for an easy weeknight pasta (pictured below).
  • With fish. When the sauce is almost complete, add seasoned mild fish (no skin), spoon over sauce, cover and cook at medium low heat for 6-8 minutes depending on the thickness of the fish. Alternatively, roast salmon and spoon on the sauce (pictured below). Or check out another yummy recipe for baked fish fillets with cherry tomato sauce.
  • Drizzled over grilled or roasted vegetables like eggplant, zucchini or mushrooms.
  • Drizzled over scrambled eggs or an omelet.
  • Tossed with meatballs
  • As a dip. Cook the sauce a little longer to thicken it more. Serve with homemade naan, crackers or crostini.
  • As a topping for crackers with a dollop of ricotta.

Recipe FAQ

What is harissa?

Harissa is a hot chili paste from Tunisia made with red chilis, garlic, spices, oil and some type of acid. You can buy it in Middle Eastern or African stores. If you can’t find it, substitute it with another hot sauce like garlic chili sauce or sriracha.

What are the traditional Moroccan spices?

Common spices in Moroccan food are ground coriander, ground turmeric, ground allspice, ground cloves, ground cumin, paprika, ground ginger, and ground cinnamon.

What is the difference between cherry tomatoes and grape tomatoes?

Grape tomatoes are oblong like grapes and smaller than cherry tomatoes. They have thicker skins are are a little less sweet. For this recipe, I prefer cherry tomatoes, but grape tomatoes will work well too.

Make Ahead

  • Cool the cherry tomato sauce and store it in the fridge for 3-4 days in a sealed container or zipper bag.
  • Or freeze it for 3-4 months.

Love tomatoes?

Canned tomatoes are just as nutritious as fresh tomatoes and are excellent in sauces. San Marzano tomatoes are our favorite canned tomatoes – sweet and less acidy.

Here are a few great recipes and tips on what to do with tomatoes using canned and fresh tomatoes. Several include cherry tomatoes. My favorite fresh tomato recipe is easy gazpacho. And my favorite canned tomato recipe is our simple San Marzano tomato sauce.

Salt is king when it comes to flavor enhancers. Check out our article on what experts say about the best salt for cooking (and what you should know).

cherry tomato sauce in pan p2

If you like this recipe, please leave a 5 star rating 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟with a comment in the recipe card below. Thanks so much!


cherry tomato sauce in skillet
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5 from 22 votes

Cherry Tomato Sauce (spicy Moroccan-style)

Sweet cherry tomatoes and Moroccan spices come together in 20 minutes to make a rich, rustic, spicy cherry tomato sauce that you just want to put on everything!
Prep Time5 minutes
Cook Time15 minutes
Total Time20 minutes
Course: Sauces
Cuisine: Moroccan-style, Vegetarian
Servings: 2 -4 depending on use


  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 medium onion, thinly sliced (about 1/2 cup)
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped 1 tsp
  • 1/2 jalapeno chili, seeded, ribs removed, Note 1 (or less if you want less spicy)
  • 1/2 teaspoon harissa paste Note 2 (or 1 tsp or more if you like it spicier)
  • 1/2 tablespoon tomato paste plus a pinch of sugar
  • 2 cups fresh cherry tomatoes (1 pint) (about 3/4 lb/340 grams)
  • 1/4 cup water (59 ml) or more as needed
  • 2 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro


  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/4 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika or smoked paprika I use half and half
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt


  • SAUTÉ: Heat oil in large skillet to medium-high heat. Sauté onions for 4-6 minutes until tender and lightly browned. Add garlic, seasonings, tomato paste (with a pinch of sugar) and harissa. Stir and cook for 1 minute.
  • ADD CHERRY TOMATOES, JALAPENO AND WATER. Bring to boil. Then lower heat to medium heat and simmer, stirring occasionally. The total time for cooking sauce (this step and the next) will be about 6-8 minutes, After 5 minutes, help burst tomatoes by gently pressing with spatula or large slotted spoon to burst them (careful not to squirt yourself).
  • FINISH SAUCE: Stir in cilantro. Continue cooking until tomatoes form a sauce the consistency you like. More cooking will make it thicker. Add more water to thin it out if needed. Taste and adjust seasonings e.g. more salt, sugar, harissa, cilantro. For a glossy finish, add a small pad of butter or drizzle on a bit of extra virgin olive oil if you like. See Note 3 for suggestions on ways to use the spicy tomato sauce.

Recipe Notes

  1. Chili options:
    • Instead of a jalapeno, use a cubanelle pepper (mild) or anaheim (mild-medium) for less heat. Or skip the jalapeno altogether.
  2. Harissa options: You can use sriracha or chili garlic sauce instead. Or even red-pepper flakes (dried chilli flakes).
  3. Ways to use the cherry tomato sauce (more details in the post above):
    • On pasta, fish or chicken
    • Drizzled over grilled or roasted vegetables or scrambled eggs. 
    • Tossed with meatballs
    • As a dip. Cook the sauce a little longer to thicken it more. Serve with homemade naan, crackers or crostini.
    • As a topping for crackers and ricotta.
  4. Make Ahead: Cool the cherry tomato sauce and store it in the fridge for 3-4 days in airtight containers or zipper bags. Or freeze it for 3-4 months.
Nutritional information is estimated based on two large portions of spicy cherry tomato sauce to use on pasta, fish or chicken. 


Calories: 113kcal | Carbohydrates: 11g | Protein: 2g | Fat: 7g | Saturated Fat: 1g | Sodium: 956mg | Potassium: 446mg | Fiber: 2g | Sugar: 6g | Vitamin A: 1162IU | Vitamin C: 42mg | Calcium: 23mg | Iron: 2mg
Tried this recipe?We’d love you to rate it above under ‘rate this recipe’ or in the comment section below. Thanks!
5 from 22 votes (18 ratings without comment)

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Recipe Rating


  1. 5 stars
    Loved this recipe! Absolutely delicious over veal chops! We love spice so used 2 red Thai chilies instead of jalapeño and Chili garlic paste instead of harissa paste. Can’t wait to taste test on other dishes!

  2. 5 stars
    This sauce is seriously delicious and very easy to make. I followed the recipe as written except that I used smoked harissa paste because I had it on hand, I used Hungarian paprika (not smoked because of the smoked harissa), and added about 1/2 cup water during step 2. I followed the directions to add cod fillets but would not do that again as it distracted from the taste of the sauce. Also served it over white rice but would not suggest that either. I think it would be a wonderful vegetarian entree over pappardelle or, perhaps, fussili pasta and I will try that next time. This recipe does not make a lot of sauce so next time I will double it. Thank you for a great recipe, Cheryl!

  3. I have smoked harissa paste in my fridge – can I use that instead of non-smoked harissa? Thank you, this looks like a great recipe and I am eager to try it.

    1. Absolutely! Just know that the flavor will be a bit different – smoky in this case, which sounds pretty great. If you’re concerned about the recipe being too smoky, I would add a little at a time and taste until you’re happy with it. Let us know how you like it!

  4. 5 stars
    Made this last night since i have all kinds of tomatoes. I discovered i didn’t have harissa but i did have chilies con adobo and used it instead of the harissa. Result is pretty hot but deep and complex taste . I took off the tomato skins since they mostly come off when cooking down the sauce. Made a double batch. I better freeze some – may make another batch!