I can’t keep up with writing up the volume of things that I think can be useful / interesting to share on here. Sometimes I master something new and I think – wow, what took me so long? There are countless other elements like broths and stock, and bread dough that I can pull together and which make the rest of my cooking more tasty, more flexible, more interesting. It is definitely a confidence thing, being able to make any kind of soup, sling any fish of any size and shape in the oven and to not have to consult a recipe book or double check the correct oven temperature, the ability to eye progress and adjust, how to pre-empt ‘doneness’ by bearing in mind the residual heat a dish contains before you serve it… At last, turning 40 a month from today, I actually have that elusive ‘feel’ for things – both in the kitchen and without. It is as if the culinary trajectory runs parallel to other elements in life: you become seasoned with a patina of firsthand exposure, layer upon layer of trials and tribulations borne of personal effort, time and experience that not matter how beautiful and fresh the greenness of youth may be, it simply cannot match it.
Recently I realized that I can make caramel by eye, and a few months back I mastered something that seemed so unfamiliar and Anglo/French and faux-grand that I thought it would be fiddly but it really wasn’t: roux and by extension, béchamel. Then my friend Brooke said: “i feel I could do with a real intro in to the basics… like how to make a roux, or a soffritto as these things crop up all the time…”. So I’m going to include this and many others on here, with hyperlinks so that you can refer to these recipes when they crop up as a subset of another recipe. I would also be very open to suggestions (grateful) at what to include in the basics section, as I think different families and cultures have a particular “house style” and a different way of approaching things and therefore everyone has their ‘essentials’ list. My take on cooking is that to be a successful intuitive cook (ie. someone broadly competent and comfortable in the kitchen), it helps to learn some of the extensive culinary alphabet. For me, coming at this cooking lark from a definitely Italian angle, soffritto is definitely one of the basic building blocks.
Soffritto is one of those things that Italians assume everyone beyond the confines of Italy must familiar with, as it is a ‘starter’ and enhancer of simply so many dishes. I use soffritto to make variations of “shepherd’s pie” and “cottage pie” that I would otherwise never be tempted to make for my family. My childhood memories of eating Shepherd’s pie and its relatives, is one of a dark and muddy 2 dimensional gristly meat base taking its colour from bovril or bisto granules. We do use stock cubes in our house, and Bouillon powder, but there is nothing that can compare with the savoury and wholesome tang that comes from frying over a little pile of diced vegetables. The classic soffritto I am referring to is basically a sepia take on the Italian flag:
- Celery (green)
- Onion (white)
- Carrot (red – sort of!)
I have often heard that celery is rich in umami and this must be why it is a key vegetable in soffritto. Apparently Parmesan is also rich in umami (no wonder Italian food is so addictive and why I end up using so much of these ingredients in my own cooking). Anyway, carrot has sweetness, as does onion once golden, and combined they produce that perfectly synergistic collision of several of three of the five key tastes once you throw in seasoning ie. sweet, salty and umami. According to Wikipedia:
Many foods that may be consumed daily are rich in umami components. Naturally occurring glutamate can be found in meats and vegetables, whereas inosinate comes primarily from meats and guanylate from vegetables. Thus, umami taste is common to foods that contain high levels of L-glutamate, IMP and GMP, most notably in fish, shellfish, cured meats, mushrooms, vegetables (e.g., ripe tomatoes, Chinese cabbage, spinach, celery, etc.) or green tea, and fermented and aged products involving bacterial or yeast cultures, such as cheeses, shrimp pastes, fish sauce, soy sauce, nutritional yeast, and yeast extracts such as Vegemite and Marmite.
There are some distinctions among stocks from different countries. In dashi, L-glutamate comes from sea kombu (Laminaria japonica) and inosinate from dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi) or small dried sardines (niboshi).
It would seem that most food cultures try and access that umami perfection but I had never consciously realized that the flavours I am drawn to most (many of the apparently eccentric elements in my store cupboard such as dashi, bonito, kombu, and less eccentric more widespread ones such as fish sauce and yeast flakes) are precisely things that boost flavour in this category. Umami is said to ‘magnify’ taste, which to me seems like a cook’s cheat, a way to just make things taste more, taste better. Retroactively I feel less of an obsessive saddo for making my own fish stock and faffing around pouring it in to my baby weaning cubes and freezing it for future use as in fact I am just lusting after umami in my cooking. To me it makes the world of difference but I get it that for a lot of people making stock is just a bridge too far in terms of hassle sometimes… In which case I highly recommend soffritto as it gets you a lot of the way there in terms of amping up the taste of many a dish.
A soffritto can also contain garlic and chilli, (especially in Abruzzo) and in Italy we often use celery leaves rather than the stem. This is probably due to the fact that the celery you find there is much more leggy and hardy, over all much greener and more wiry (when you buy it at a real market) than the water-rich, virtually albino variety found further north. For this reason you may find that your frying time varies, depending on water content.
Lastly, when I make a pasta sauce for the kids and I want to morph it in to something more compelling and more dashing with heat and oomph, I will often slice up a clove or two of garlic and give it a gentle fry with some fresh chillies (or dried if that’s what you have to hand) and then heat the sugo up in the two-ingredient soffritto before adding to the pasta. Soffritto is also the key to tomato sauce, most of my risotti, the key to making an amazing Ragù and basically anything you care to make with mince. Look no further:
This recipe is a soffritto that would be suit a sugo that would serve c. 10 people (made with 2-3 x 700g bottles of passata). Simply halve this amount for a regular 2L saucepan size.
You don't need to weigh your veg unless you want to, it may be helpful first time around, until you 'get you eye in'. I know a large handful of each vegetable is a good measure for me, and should occupy most of the bottom of the sauté I use, once dropped in and spread thinly and evenly across the breadth.
Sorry to delve in to detail with the chopping technique, but it makes a whole word of difference to your speed and outcome. You could of course use an electric chopper appliance but it doesn't make cubes, it makes little chiselled pieces of varying size so your veg don't fry very reliably. I have done this many a time with no qualms, when horribly pressed for time.
- 4 tbsp olive oil or 2-3 heaped spoons of coconut oil 'cuisine' (the odourless variety) or high-smoke point neutral oil of your choice.
- 1-2 sticks of celery (70g approx or about 5 tbsp once chopped finely)
- 1 medium carrot (c. 70g)
- 1 small onion or large shallot (c.70g)
- 3 large cloves garlic
- additionally some people add herbs at the early stage or make preserve raw soffritto veg all prepped in jars with herbs, I will explain how to do this in a separate recipe.
- You can start by pouring a thin stream of your oil or measuring out enough oil to cover the base of your pan well.
- No need to turn on the heat until your veg are all finely chopped (except the garlic)
- Take your celery and pare it down in to roughly 10cm lengths about 1 inch (2-3cm) wide (see photos in soffritto post) as this will make chopping it much faster and more systematic.
- With a sharp knife, slice through it lengthways, following the long fibres visible in the celery, slicing about every 3-4mm or so if possible. In places where the celery is thick, you may need to turn some of these slices over a quarter turn and slice them down their length again, in order to give them a square (rather than rectangular) cross-section.
- This is so that when you spin these long thin matchsticks round 90° to cut them crossways, they turn in to tiny cubes not rectangular prisms. This ensures they brown evenly rather than sweating on side and burning on another.
- Do the same thing with your carrot(s). Slice a sliver off its length so that it can sit without rocking.
- Then cut them into 3mm slices lengthways. These should now be long rectangular slices almost the same width as the diameter of the carrot (minus the part you pared away intitally) and about 3mm in cross-section.
- Flip these slices standing up on their side, over a quarter turn so that they lie flat and slice these flat fat slices in to 3mm matchsticks lengthways again. Turn these matchsticks round 90° and chop through them in to tiny fine orange cubes.
- For your onion, peel off any dry outer layers of skin, slice lengthways from hairy root to leathery top and then peel off the outer, fiddlier layers until you reach the first of the fresh, juicy unblemished onion layers.
- Remove the heart of the onion (see photo) to ensure the acrid, sulphurous quality of the allium is toned down. I do this by scoring a deep pyramid around the root and lifting out the flame-shaped bulb that attaches to it.
- Do the same to the other half.
- With the onion lying flat half down, pungent core removed, leathery top to your left (if right- handed) control the opposite outer edges of the onion with your fore-finger and thumb of your free hand. With your knife-wielding hand, slice horizontally from the tip of the onion to the base, the onion top and your hand combined, will ensure the onion stays together instead of fanning out in to a mess.
- Then as you did with the other veg and slice perpendicularly through the cuts you have made. The onion layers will break up along with your slices to give fine white onion cubes. Perfect!
- Turn on your heat and when the oil is warm throw in your finely chopped soffritto vegetables.
- Stir regularly to avoid sticking and uneven colour.
- While these are slowly going golden, peel and finely slice your garlic (don't chop as the greater surface-area will make it burn faster if you do)
- When the onion is turning from transparent to a light golden colour at the edges, slide the garlic in to the pan with the other veg, and stir.
- Do not let the garlic burn (ie. it must be lightly crispy and yellow not brown in colour) or else it will taste horribly bitter and ruin your dish.
- Proceed with your dish of choice!
You can also, if you are the kind of person who in your more manic moments likes to batch cook and store for a rainy day, you can make an industrial amount and preserve it in jars…
All you do is up the quantities of the above veg in proportion, (you might want to skip the garlic as then you have the option of adding it without too much hassle when needed), salting it (1 part salt to 4 parts veg, in weight – 1:4). In Italy they often advise the following:
1/2 kg rock salt
2 tbsp fresh parsley / thyme (I don’t recommend basil as it doesn’t keep well at all so is best added fresh).
… Make sure these are, as ever, all finely chopped and then sprinkled with the salt and allowed to sit for 10 minutes in a large bowl. The veg are then strained and patted dry and then mixed with olive oil so as to be thoroughly coated, and then spooned in to glass jars (sterilized if you prefer, but I never bother) and covered over with more oil. Make sure you bang these jars firmly on a tea-towel on a work surface to allow any air-bubbles to escape, then top up again with oil, so that unlike an iceberg, no single point of the soffritto mix is surfacing above the oil. Close with a lid and store somewhere cool such as a cellar or fridge or shed for a month or more. When my aunt does them they keep for months!
As you use the jars, but perhaps don’t finish them, simply top them up with more oil to create an air-seal and continue to store. Voilà! Next time you are making something on the hoof, no faffing with peeling and chopping, two heaped tablespoons and you’re done. Just be sure not to add any more salt to your final dish as the preserving salt will be quite potent.