First Things First: Sofrito

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As a kid, when I got home from school, I remember opening the door and being met immediately with the smell of my mom preparing the evening meal. That first smell, the first thing that got going before nearly every meal, a combination of onion, garlic, peppers and tomato, permeated the whole house and got us all eagerly anticipating dinner.

Sometimes its ingredients are referred to as the “Holy Trinity,” the sofrito is at the heart and forms the basis of aromatics and flavor for nearly all dishes Latin.

Meats, beans, rice or anything with a sauce starts with a sofrito and knowing how to put one together determines a dish’s success or failure. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not rocket science but some attention should be paid to its assembly because when done properly the dish becomes memorable.

To me the evidence that I’ve got a good sofrito going is when my 10-year old son shouts over his homework, “I smell something good!”

Here’s the sofrito my grandfather and my mother taught me.

Ingredients

  • Onions — you can go with red for sweetness but traditionally it’s Spanish yellow for its pungency. During a brief window of time in Kentucky (mid Spring through early Summer), I love the sweet white grown by the local Amish when I’ve been up for a visit. They’re about a kajillion times tastier than commercial Vidalia’s (despite their marketing) and sweet even when served raw.
  • Garlic — an oft asked question is how much garlic is appropriate to use. About 10% of the population knows how much garlic to use, the following doesn’t apply to them. If you fall in the 90%, use this as a guide: think about an amount that you’d think is surely too much, then double it.
  • Peppers — traditionally many use green but at the end you’re looking to develop the sugars in these aromatics and among bell peppers, green have the lowest sugar content. If the dish is a special occasion, ideally use yellow.
  • Tomato — I know, I know, I said “trinity” so there can only be three, right? BUT through the summer I’ll add really GREAT tomatoes that either I grow myself or I get from the most reputable sources, peel ’em (here’s a great video on how I do it–but ignore the seeding, don’t do that), rough chop, and add to the sofrito.

Dice or julienne the onion, your preference. Make a garlic paste with the garlic. Dice the peppers as small as you can get them — the smaller the pieces, the greater the surface area, the more they’ll break down and render their sugars.

Heat some vegetable oil over medium high heat in a sauté pan or cast iron skillet (my favorite). No Extra Virgin Olive Oil? No. Not at this point. Sautéing in olive oil is a waste of good olive oil. It has a low smoking point so you’ll either end up not having enough heat for a good sauté or you’ll kick the heat up and smoke your oil, losing all that awesomeness. Begin with vegetable oil, we’ll add Extra Virgin Olive Oil at the end.

When the oil shimmers add your ingredients, all of them. Toss often and add the following to build on for a great sauce: cooking wine, vinegar, stock (beef, chicken or seafood, depending on the meal).

How do you sofrito? Post a comment below, I’d love to get some more recipes!

Illustration: Marcos Reyes, Pen and Ink.
Photograph: Daniel Pantoja

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