What to CookWeeknight Cooking

Soffritto: A Not-So-Secret Secret Ingredient

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Cooking on the cheap shouldn't mean minute rice and buttered pasta every night. With a little creativity and a little planning, Catherine Lamb shows us how to make the most of a tight budget -- without sacrificing flavor or variety. 

Today: Meet soffritto, the secret ingredient that's really three ingredients and your new weeknight dinner base.

I’m not going to lie. I stole the idea for this post from my roommate’s boyfriend, who is the sous chef at a very good, get-your-reservations-two-months-in-advance kind of place. We were sitting in the living room and I was procrastinating, trying (out loud, I might add) to think up another nugget of broke cooking wisdom. “Why don’t you just write about soffritto?” he asked, with a shrug. 

You already know of soffritto even if you don’t know it by that name. It’s the Italian term for onions, carrots, and celery, diced small and cooked in a bit of butter or oil until soft and just shy of brown. Golden. This is the flavor base from which many soups, stews, and sauces are sprung into being. What restaurant chefs (like my roommate's boyfriend) know that we kitchen cooks might not yet have thought of (and if you have, I salute you) is that this versatile flavor base can be kept on hand and used to add instant depth and personality to our most half-assed of weeknight meals. 

More: Speaking of sauces, do you know the five mother sauces yet? It's time to learn.

Shrimp Gumbo

Soffritto is like one of those infomercials that come on when you’re for some reason watching television at 2 A.M.—it seems too good to be true. It is born from three of the cheapest kitchen workhorses and it’s essentially a shortcut to full-flavored meals. And time, after all, is money.

Here’s how to harness its power:

Chop up a relatively equal amount of onions, carrots, and celery (when in doubt, err on the side of more onions). The onions can be any color; the carrots can be any level of crispness, organic or not so much. Yes, you can use that wilty piece of celery that you’d been meaning to eat as a snack but couldn’t quite do because apparently it’s negative calories and that’s just not going to cut it come snacktime. Roughly dice these three types of vegetables.

Heat a bit of olive oil or butter in a skillet, then toss in the onions. When they’re translucent and smell good enough to make you hungry, add in the carrots and celery. Cook, stirring occasionally, until all of the vegetables are limp and starting to turn golden. This can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how much color you want. 

You can store the soffritto in oil for up to three days in your fridge. Add a spoonful to scrambled eggs or frittatas, stir it into jarred pasta sauces, and toss with vegetable sautés to make them hum. Use its power to brighten up leftover meat or fish. The caramelization of the vegetables brings an instant hit of richness and umami, without any cream, significant amounts of butter, or excessive salt. You won't be able to pinpoint the taste of the onions, the carrots, or the celery, but the soffritto will add the taste of time to your dishes. Bonus: You'll clean out your vegetable crisper in the process.

True purists will want to stick with the carrot, onion, and celery trinity, but if you crave all things new and different, here are a few variations to try:

  • Add minced garlic a few minutes before soffritto is finished and let it cook just until it starts to turn brown.
  • Stir in a tablespoon or so of tomato paste at the end of cooking time.
  • Before taking off the heat, deglaze any brown bits on the bottom of your soffritto with white wine or vermouth. Those brown bits are flavor, people.
  • Add any odds and ends of cured meats to the pan after you sweat the onions. The fatty end pieces of prosciutto or spicy sausage are especially good.
  • Don’t limit your root vegetables to carrots; fennel and turnips add a nice sweetness to the final product.
  • If you’re feeling the good times and want to let them roll, sub in some bell peppers for the carrots (now you’ve officially achieved the holy trinity of Cajun cooking). Then make gumbo.

Did you already know about the soffritto trick? What will you use it in?

First and last photo by James Ransom; second photo by Mark Weinberg

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Tags: On the Cheap