Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sofrito: A Savory Recipe for Fabulous Flavor

Sofrito is the mirepoix of Latin cooking. Daughters learn how to make this savory flavor base by spending time with family matriarchs in the kitchen and listening to their stories. During my childhood in the Bronx I learned that there wasn't a difference between a nonna and an abuela when it came to keeping recipes secret. This was especially true if the creation in question was the culinary signature of a good cook in the culture.

The Puerto Rican abuelas and Italian nonnas I knew as a child had a healthy respect for memory because that is where they kept most of their recipes. If you asked nonna for a tomato sauce recipe or abuela for a sofrito recipe the answer was the same, "a little of this and a little of that" or "my English is no so good." The language barrier always puzzled me as these women seemed to understand more than they led on. You could see it in their eyes when they listened to conversations at the dinner table; you couldn't hide anything from them.

Grandmothers who cooked regularly didn't have to write recipes down because instinct took over when they prepared their signature dishes and sauces. They read their creations as they cooked like one reads words in the pages of a book. They'd smell, taste and make adjustments with preternatural finesse. As a child I had a deep sense of curiosity about the work of their hands. The perfect balance of flavors in their food made you feel like you were floating on air as you sat at the dinner table. The more you ate the more you felt like all was right in the world, and that you were loved unconditionally. That is what eating a good home-cooked meal does and it's what motivates the busiest of people to continue doing it today.

Figuring out how to make a delicious tomato sauce is possible if you have access to a variety of Italian cookbooks and the patience for squeezing San Marzano tomatoes by hand. Finding a good recipe for sofrito is an all together different affair. I became obsessed with procuring a genuine recipe for sofrito in 2008, after I tasted Puerto Rican Sweet Plantain Lasagna. When the cook yielded her recipe, it came without handwriting. Josephine Nieves gave me a salad dressing carafe filled with her boricua sofrito and told me, "It has a bunch of culantro, a head or more of garlic, sweet red bell pepper and extra virgin olive oil. Make it and taste it. You'll know when it's right." I listened closely to my friend Josephine, beloved abuelita of Jacob.

The perfume of sofrito is sublime. Its flavor supports many dishes as it melds with meat, dairy, fish, poultry and vegetables. I used my sense of smell and taste to configure the exact proportion of ingredients used in Josephine's sofrito and created my first few batches of sofrito using culantro, an herb that can be found in neighborhoods where Puerto Rican culture thrives. Glass Petal Smoke's recipe for sofrito makes use of cilantro in place of culantro (sanctioned by Josephine) as the flavor profiles are similar and cilantro is more readily available, (culantro is stronger and earthier than cilantro and is sold in small bags at market). This sofrito recipe in this post includes annatto and oregano which add earthy qualities that cilantro lacks when compared to culantro. You can leave these two ingredients out if you prefer.

After you make Glass Petal Smoke's sofrito try it in an omelet to see how beautifully the ingredients meld together, (1 teaspoon for up to three eggs). You can also add sofrito to chicken stock (1 tablespoon for each quart of stock) and make soup using chicken, vegetables and pasta. If you use your imagination there is little that will not taste good with sofrito; including spaghetti sauce.

Recipe by Michelle Krell Kydd
Yield: 1 to 1 1/2 cups

  • 1 bunch of cilantro (rinsed, stems removed)
  • 12 cloves of garlic (up to 15 if you love garlic)
  • 1 1/2 medium-sized red bell peppers (two are fine if you prefer)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground annatto seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground Mexican oregano (ground distributes flavor evenly)
  • 1/2 cup and 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (fruity type)
  • Peel garlic cloves and slice vertically so the pieces look like small discs, (see first image in the Sofrito Flavor Cube that accompanies this post). Allow the garlic to rest for 15 minutes, as you continue prepping the sofrito ingredients. This will increase flavor and allicin content.
  • Rinse cilantro in cold water to remove residual soil. Separate leaves and discard stems (the later will make your sofrito stringy and watery, even if you use a food processor).
  • Rinse, seed and slice red bell peppers in preparation for use in a food processor.
  • Pour olive oil into a small measuring cup.
  • Measure dry spices into a small bowl.
  • Layer ingredients in a 3-4 cup food processor, with the exception of the olive oil.
  • Add olive oil to the layered herbs, vegetables and spices.
  • Alternate between the chop and grind setting on your food processor until you have a paste. The cilantro should be thoroughly macerated.
  • Store in a glass jar or freeze for future use.
The flavor cube photo includes four ingredients used in the sofrito recipe. They are (clockwise, from top left to bottom right): garlic, annatto, red bell peppers and cilantro leaves. Design by Michelle Krell Kydd.

Cilantro is sold by the bunch in supermarkets. It is usually two hand spans wide at the top.

Annatto adds flavor and color. It has a sweet, woody and earthy profile.

Mexican oregano is more floral and less medicinal tasting than the Turkish variety. You can substitute marjoram if Mexican oregano is not available.

If you have access to culantro use 1 and 1/2 bunches in place of cilantro in this recipe, (two bunches if you amp up the garlic).

Visit The Posh Latin Cook and follow Elena Carlo as she takes you a flavorful journey regarding all types of sofrito. Es muy sabroso!

When Celia Cruz sings "Yo Le Pongo Sazón" (translation, "I use seasoning/flavor") she means it. It's no coincidence that half of the video for the song, which includes Celia's recipe for an enduring marriage, is filmed in a kitchen. Cruz and husband Pedro Knight Caraballo were married for 41 years, so it's worth taking a cue from Celia and adding a little sazón to your life using sofrito.