Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Cooking Magic: The Perfume of Sofrito

As children we grow accustomed to the aromas and flavors of the kitchen as they are presented to us. They form a palette that we draw upon, coloring future experiences of taste. I recall the smell of my mother’s broiled chicken—the distinct mingling of garlic salt, sweet paprika, fatted chicken skin and fire. The scent would waft out of the kitchen, sneaking into hallway of our fourth floor apartment like a genie being slowly released from its bottle. Formative taste memories may seduce with nostalgia, but the flavor of sofrito teases and taunts like no other aromatic preparation I have ever encountered.

The soul of a great cook is possessed by an alchemist and a conjurer. The alchemist works in the realms of weights and measures, readying ingredients for transformation. The conjurer tenders a part of their spirit as an offering, the end result being a melding of essences—that of the cook and their creation. Josephine Nieves is an example such a cook. Returning home from a long day’s work, I would pass by her basement apartment door and become transfixed by cumin, garlic, and essences so well combined that I could not separate the individual ingredients no matter how hard I tried. The effusive bouquet would welcome me like a good friend, a comforting reminder that I was home at last.

Apartment living is a melting pot of cooking magic. Between 4:00 and 8:00 p.m. one’s appetite can be stirred by the ether of aromas escaping individual kitchens. Beckoning scents traverse hallways and stairwells, like friendly wide-eyed souls looking for company. The scents from Josephine’s kitchen coaxed my appetite until I was no longer satisfied with living in the fantasy of tasting what I smelled at her doorway. Josephine and I shared many conversations about life and as our talks migrated toward food, the subject began to take on a life of its own. I began bringing freshly baked Middle Eastern pastries like hamentashen, maamoul and all manner of cakes to her house. She reciprocated with arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), tostones (fried, sweet plantain) and the most fabulous rice and beans I have ever tasted.

One afternoon, I stood at her door with a copy of my hamentashen recipe in hand. I reached for the bell and drew a deep breath; it was that familiar savory bouquet I had become well-acquainted with over the years. As I exhaled, she opened the door and I stood there, intoxicated by the smell of her cooking. I didn’t even say hello, “What is that aroma?” I asked. “I’ve smelled it for years and always wondered what it was.” Josephine was beaming, but there was a glimmer of something very serious in her eyes. “I will show you one day,” she said. One day felt like a lifetime, but I knew that I had to be patient—not all cooks gave away their secrets. A week later, we met in the laundry room and she thanked me for the cookie recipe I had given her. “Wait here,” she said, “I have something for you.”

She went inside her apartment, the door slowly shutting behind her with a moan. Josephine reappeared suddenly, her footsteps virtually silent as she walked towards me with a carafe in her hands and said, “This is sofrito.” Fifteen seconds of stillness followed her pronouncement and I felt like I had been handed a kitchen scepter. Sofrito is the base that supports a vast repertoire of dishes in Latin cooking and aesthetically speaking, it is a cook’s signature, a unique mark that accents all savory dishes. For this reason sofrito recipes are not generally shared with others. A good cook has to figure how to make a sofrito recipe on their own, improvising on proportions based on what they tasted in the kitchens of their childhood. Josephine’s sofrito contains sweet peppers, culantro (a relative of cilantro that grows in tropical climates), garlic and olive oil. Some Spanish cooks add onions, but Josephine insists that they aren’t necessary. She would not write down the exact measurements because, like most of her recipes, they reside inside her—the carafe and folklore are all I was permitted. Grateful, I rushed upstairs to prepare an omelet using the sofrito.

I cracked three eggs into a bowl and added a tablespoon of sofrito. Beating the mixture with a fork, I leaned over to catch a whiff. The garlic was strong and I couldn’t get a singular sense of the other ingredients. I turned the knob on the gas stove and my anticipation grew with the heat. For a moment, I was ten and in my mother’s kitchen, arms folded on the table, the sound of aluminum foil rattling as it was being made into a makeshift tray to corral pieces of chicken. The eggs hit the frying pan with a low hiss and the air grew rich with a familiar aroma. I was transported through a revolving door of years, days, hours, seconds—I was nine and making eggs on the stove for the first time. Seconds lapsed into a crescendo of the present. I turned down the flame and put the eggs on a plate, recalling the glimmer in Josephine’s eyes when she handed me the carafe. As I tasted the eggs, a sense of separation and longing I had carried for years melted away. Knowledge and satisfaction could not deflate this truth; I was in possession of magic yet fully possessed myself.


If culantro is not available, feel free to use cilantro, which is bright and citrusy in flavor, in contrast to the darker, earthier culantro. Josephine's recipe for sofrito might include 1 large handful of culantro (substitute cilantro), 4 garlic cloves, 1 red bell pepper, ½ cup of olive oil, ½ teaspoon salt. Grind in a mortar or a food processor until the mixture turns into a paste.

The November 24, 2013 edition of Glass Petal Smoke features a thorough recipe for Josephine's sofrito.

A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2007 edition of Bois de Jasmin.