Before you get a chance to taste your dinner, you smell it. The aromatic ingredients in any recipe spotlight and complement the main components, adding interest and layers of flavour. Without aromatics, dishes can seem one-note and forgettable. To elevate your savoury dishes, start with your nose. Build up flavour with sofrito.
Sofrito — not to be confused with Italian soffritto, which has the same ingredients as a mirepoix — is a flavorful base of bold aromatic ingredients well-known for its use in Puerto Rican cuisine, but it’s also used across the Caribbean, and in Portuguese, Mediterranean, and Spanish cuisine (under different names, however). Sofrito, or recaito, is made with garlic, onions, peppers, culantro, cilantro, and sometimes tomatoes. The exciting part is that this isn’t even an exhaustive ingredient list. Depending on the region, different peppers or herbs are more common than others. One person’s recipe could have ratios and ingredients that differ from their neighbour’s, and I think that’s beautiful.
The ingredients work in perfect harmony; wherever they grow, you can surely smell sofrito in the air. Similarly to how mirepoix functions as a starter for soups and sauces, sofrito lays down a foundation of flavour. The veggies are chopped and lightly fried in oil to soften them and bring out their flavours, then stewed with other parts of the meal. Frankly, I find mirepoix (diced carrots, celery, and onion) to be on the tame side. Mirepoix is subtle, whereas sofrito brings in the fireworks. This is all due to the punchy flavours of the garlic, onion, cilantro and/or culantro.
Making sofrito takes a but a moment in your handy food processor. Peel the garlic cloves and onion, rinse the herbs (if necessary), deseed the large peppers, and core the tomato (if using). Cut everything into chunks so they fit well in your machine. Blend the dickens out of it until you have a thick, finely chopped salsa. Use it immediately, or store in the fridge for up to five days. Sofrito also keeps well frozen. Freeze in separate serving containers or in an ice cube tray for small, easy to use portions.
The fresh herbal flavours and sharp garlic notes of sofrito mellow out when cooked, and pair well with hearty ingredients like roasted meats, beans, and stews. Try making a sofrito chicken. After you sear the chicken in oil, add the sofrito to the pan and let it cook down for a few minutes to soften. Add the other ingredients for the sauce and finish in the oven. Or try your homemade sofrito in habichuelas guisadas, a comforting, savoury bean stew in which sofrito cooks and mingles with ham until fragrant. Herbs, spices, tomato sauce, and broth build up the luscious stew, and finally the beans are added to simmer away until soft and creamy.
I have trouble getting my hands on culantro, and ajíes dulces (the small sweet peppers) in my neighbourhood grocery store, so I use a modified version of this simple sofrito recipe from Serious Eats, substituting the culantro with cilantro. Do what you can with what you got, I always say. Nothing should stop you from having a flavorful, aromatic base for your meals.
Sofrito (modified from Serious Eats)
- 2 green bell peppers or cubanelle peppers
- 1 large white onion
- 1 bunch of cilantro, including stems
- 4-6 mini sweet peppers, or sweet chilli peppers
- 8-10 cloves of garlic, peeled
Prepare the vegetables. Stem and seed the large peppers. Peel the onion and cut off the root and papery tip. Rinse the cilantro, if needed. Stem the small peppers but the seeds are fine if left in. Peel the garlic cloves. Roughly chop all of the ingredients so they fit well inside of the food processor. Blend until finely chopped. Use immediately or store for future use.
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