It’s morning in the American supermarket. As the Sriracha rooster crows, Jemima, a working mother, drops the kids off at Miss Butterworth’s daycare. Liquid-Plumr (call him Joe) dreams of a better life and lower taxes, and it’s all lion dances and bar mitzvahs in the ethnic aisle with Messieurs La Choy and Manischewitz. Corporations are people, too, but it’s worthwhile to keep in mind that even the most storied and iconic brand sauces and flavor bases started out as somebody’s homemade recipe. So let’s come home to Sofrito, the condiment you can make yourself.
The word “sofrito” derives from the Catalan verb “sofrefir”—to fry lightly. A sofrito is generally understood as an combination of herbs and aromatic vegetables (and sometimes spices) lightly sauteed in oil or fat to provide a flavor foundation for multiple dishes, much like the French mirepoix or Cajun holy trinity. But unlike those, it’s a culinary concept that defines itself more by a technique and a flavor profile than by any specific ingredients.
As a result, sofrito casts a rather enormous net upon the culinary universe. There are Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Filipino versions that vary quite a bit. For the purposes of this column, I’m concentrating on Latino-Caribbean sofrito, a staple of Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican and Yucatecan cuisines. You’ve probably tasted it doing the heavy lifting in dishes like arroz con pollo, poc-chuc, and Picadillo. But it can certainly provide a solid foundation for all kinds of cuisine, Latin or otherwise. It’s great in soup, beans, stews, and chili—or even atop scrambled eggs or steaks or chops. Check out my own personal sofrito formulation below, along with some recipes that I hope illustrate its versatility and heft.
What does sofrito bring to the party? It imparts depth and reach; like the undertow beneath the flavor wave. It makes a dish taste substantial, like somebody’s mother made it.
Now, you purists out there will say that sofrito is not, according to Hoyle, a condiment, but more precisely a technique or a method. This is true. In a sense, when I make a big batch of this stuff and put it in a jar that goes in the fridge, or freeze it into little green cubes to use three months from now, I’m storing a condiment that becomes sofrito only at the moment it hits hot oil. Semantics aside, it's useful to have in the kitchen.
Also, you can actually find what looks like a quality jarred sofrito in stores or online. Chulita’s Famous is all natural and MSG-free and looks quite promising. But first, try out my recipe below, because there aren’t many top-notch do-it-yourself condiments out there. And, let’s face it, as much as you and I might want to stick it to the corporate condiment man, we can’t make Heinz ketchup at home. With sofrito, yes we can!
(Makes about 5 ½ cups)
1 large yellow onion (or 2 small ones), 1-inch chop
1 large red bell pepper (or 2 small ones), 1-inch chop
4 medium plum tomatoes (about 1 pound), cored, 1-inch chop
6 – 10 garlic cloves, peeled
1 – 3 pickled habanero peppers, stemmed and seeded.
5 – 8 pickled pepperoncini, stemmed
1 large bunch of cilantro, thickest part of stems removed
4 – 7 blades of culantro (recao)
large pinch of salt
Put all ingredients in bowl of food processor. Run until pesto consistency is achieved, stopping once or twice to scrape down sides of bowl. Fill two ice cube trays with sofrito and freeze for future use. Each cube represents about a fluid ounce (1/8 cup) of sofrito. Put remainder in a jar for immediate use. Sofrito will keep fresh for just under two weeks in the refrigerator.
CHILLED CUCUMBER AVOCADO SOUP
1 large English cucumber, seeded
1 medium avocado
¼ cup onion, minced
4 tbsp. (or 2 frozen cubes) sofrito
½ cup cold water
juice of 1 lime
2 tsp. Champagne vinegar
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 tbsp. additional extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling
Place all ingredients except for olive oil in bowl of food processor. Run until smooth, adding 2 tbsp. olive oil from chute while running. Chill in refrigerator for a couple of hours, a little less if using frozen sofrito cubes. Drizzle remaining oil over individual servings.
SPICY TORTILLA SOUP
1 tbsp. olive oil
½ medium onion, fine dice
2 small carrots, ¼-inch dice
1 stalk celery, ¼-inch dice
chili powder (scroll to bottom for recipe)
1 clove garlic, minced
½ cup sofrito
2 bay leaves
6 cups fortified chicken stock
1” x 1” piece of Parmigiano Reggiano rind
juice of 1 lime
1 small split-breast chicken, poached or roasted, shredded
salt and pepper to taste
canola oil for frying tortilla ribbons
3 corn tortillas, cut in half and then cut into matchstick ribbons and deep-fried until golden brown
pinch of salt to season tortilla ribbons while still hot
2 medium avocados, cut into ¾” x ½” pieces
½ cup grated Monterey jack cheese
1 lime cut into wedges for garnish
cilantro shamrocks for garnish
Heat olive oil in a 3-qt. saucepan over medium-high heat. When oil is shimmering, add onion, carrots and celery to pan. Saute for a few minutes, until slightly soft. Stir in chili powder and garlic, continue to saute for a minute or so. Add sofrito and bay leaves to pan, stirring to incorporate; saute 2 minutes more. Add chicken stock and bring up to a boil. Add cheese rind, and lower heat to low. Simmer partially covered for 30 minutes.
While soup simmers, shred chicken breast by hand and prep your tortillas, avocados, and garnishes.
When soup has simmered enough, remove and discard cheese rind and bay leaves. Add lime juice and chicken; salt and pepper to taste. To serve, ladle into bowls and garnish with avocado, cilantro, tortilla ribbons and lime wedges.
2 tbsp. beef tallow, bacon grease, or lard*
2 lbs. flank steak cut into 3” x 2” pieces
1 large green bell pepper, ¼-inch dice
1 large yellow onion, cut in half, root-to-shoot, and then sliced very thinly crosswise
1 tbsp. dried oregano
1 tbsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. dried thyme
½ tsp. achiote paste
⅔ cup sofrito
5 – 8 cloves of garlic, minced
3 bay leaves
1 tsp. smoked Spanish paprika
6 oz. tomato paste
6 fl. oz. dry white wine
1 14.5-oz can of diced tomatoes, drained
1 ½ tsp. Better Than Bouillon beef base
2 ½ cups hot chicken stock chicken stock
⅓ cup pimento-stuffed manzanilla olives, rinsed
¼ cup non-pareil capers, rinsed
2 tbsp. Champagne vinegar
¼ cup cilantro leaves, chopped
cilantro shamrocks for garnish
* I know this sounds crazy, but I actually strain-and-save any extra rendered beef or bacon fat in the freezer. If you don’t have any on hand, just fry up about a half-pound of bacon (that you can use later) or buy the smallest amount of lard you can find.
In a Dutch oven or pressure cooker, over medium-high heat, render tallow/grease. When fat is hot, brown steak pieces in batches, about 3 minutes on the first side, about 2 on the second; setting browned pieces aside on a plate.
While steak is browning, place chicken stock in a microwave-safe bowl or glass measuring cup; heat on high power in microwave for two minutes or so, or until stock is about the temperature of very hot tea. Dissolve beef base in hot chicken stock.
Now back to the pot. When all the beef has been browned and, add pepper and onion to pot and saute for about 3 minutes or until softened. Add oregano, cumin, thyme, achiote paste, and sofrito, stirring well to combine. Saute for two additional minutes. Now add garlic, bay leaves, paprika, garlic, and tomato paste. Stir well and continue to apply heat for another minute or two. Add white wine, stirring continually and scraping bottom of pan. After about a minute, stir in diced tomatoes and stock. Now reintroduce beef to the pot, along with whatever juices have collected on the plate. Cover and bring pot up to a boil. If using pressure cooker, seal cooker and set at high-pressure.
When pot has come to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer covered for about 2 ½ hours. Alternately, when pressure cooker has achieved high pressure, reduce heat to medium-low and allow to cook under pressure for 50 minutes
Remove fork-tender beef from Dutch oven or pressure cooker and place on a large platter or a cutting board. Working with a fork in each hand, shred beef thoroughly. Return shredded beef to pot along with olives, capers and vinegar. Bring to a boil and simmer uncovered for another 20 minutes. Stir in chopped cilantro leaves, and salt and pepper to taste. Garnish and serve with rice.
ARROZ CON GANDULES (RICE WITH PIGEON PEAS)
1 slice thick-cut bacon, chopped
1 cup long grain white rice
2 tsp achiote paste
¼ cup onion, minced
¼ cup green bell pepper, minced
1 tsp. ground cumin
⅓ cup sofrito
½ tsp turmeric
1 ¼ cups chicken stock
1 15.5 oz. can of gandules (pigeon peas), well drained
pinch of saffron, about 7 threads
In a large cast-iron skillet over medium to medium low heat, slowly render and brown bacon, stirring occasionally. While bacon cooks, rinse rice thoroughly and, using a strainer, drain rice even more thoroughly. Set aside.
When bacon has browned, raise heat to medium-high and add onion, bell pepper, cumin, sofrito, bay leaf and turmeric. Saute mixture for about a minute, stirring with a wooden spoon. Add rice and saute for about another minute. Transfer contents of skillet to a rice cooker or a saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Add saffron, chicken stock, and gandules. Salt to taste and cook just as you would a regular pot of rice.
INDIO POLENTA PUDDING
3 cups 1% milk
½ cup corn grits (polenta)
2 tbsp. butter plus more for greasing souffle dish
⅔ cup molasses
2 tbsp. all-purpose flour
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
¼ tsp. ground ginger
½ tsp. ground allspice
pinch of nutmeg
½ tsp. kosher salt
1 tbsp. sofrito
1 egg, beaten
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 6-inch souffle dish. Heat the milk in a medium saucepan to just below boiling over medium-high heat. Slowly pour in polenta while whisking vigorously. Reduce heat to medium and continue whisking steadily for about 10 minutes until grits are quite thick and fluffy. Remove from heat and whisk in 2 tbsp. butter. Set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together all remaining ingredients. Incorporate molasses mixture completely into polenta, whisking continuously until well-integrated. Pour mixture into a greased souffle dish that will go into the oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes, rotating at the 40-minute mark. Promptly remove from oven at end of cooking time and allow to cool. Don’t be upset if the center caves in a little, this is inevitable. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup.