Aromatics are a group of flavorful vegetables that are full of “aroma” (“odori “in Italian). They give up those wonderful scents and flavors for enjoyment in the kitchen while cooking, and give depth and breadth to sauces, soups, braises, and stews—among other preparations. A mixture of aromatics is a basic preparation for Mediterranean, Latin American, Spanish, Portuguese and of course Italian cuisine. There are six primary aromatics. They main two, of course, are the onion family (red, yellow and white onions and “young onions” or scallions) and the garlic family (garlic, shallots, leeks and chives). The other four prevalent aromatics are celery, carrot, bell pepper and fennel.
The actual “blend of aromatics” depends upon the region of origin of the dish, the region of origin of the cook (i.e. remembering Nonna), and the finished flavors needed before serving. For example, the famous French fish stew called bouillabaisse comes from Marseille, the home of the anise-flavored French liqueur Pastis (also known as Pernod and Ricard). So, if an anise-based liquor is used in the dish, then it is logical to have aromatic fennel as part of the base flavors in the dish. Or vice versa—if, for example, you are making braised fennel as a side dish, it is logical to finish it with a sauce of butter, Pastis and anise or fennel seeds.
In France, the basic aromatic mixture is called mirepoix and is always 50% chopped onion, 25% chopped celery and 25% chopped carrots—it refers to either the chopped raw vegetables or the finished cooked vegetable mixture, which, in French cooking, is always sautéed in butter. In Italy, the same preparation of raw odori (aromatics) is called battuto (literally “knocked down, battered,” hence “chopped”), and garlic is often added. The battuto becomes soffritto when cooked. The term soffritto is both a noun and verb. As a noun it can mean either the finished ingredients or the process; as a verb it means “stir fried” but also “under fried” or “slow fried.” Compared to the French mirepoix which is always cooked in butter, Italian soffritto is usually cooked in olive oil and sometimes in a mixture of olive oil and butter. In Cajun cooking in New Orleans, the preparation is called “the holy trinity” and the carrots are replaced with bell pepper, thus: onions, celery, green peppers. Creole cooking adds tomato to the base. The Spanish version, sofrito, can add garlic, bell peppers and/or tomato paste, or all three, to the basic onion, celery and carrots. The cuisine of Southern France was influenced by Arab flavors (through the port city of Marseille), and thus you see in Provence that the carrots are omitted in favor of fennel. The basic Brazilian refogado is onions and garlic only. The point is that there are many different combinations, and the chef can therefore adapt for a given recipe or just use whatever odori are on hand. And instead of adding flavors the chef can also subtract flavors, as in the odori used to start risotto*, which is just chopped onions or onions and garlic.
Preparing the aromatics (whichever version) takes time. For the Italian soffritto, the battuto is put into a pan seasoned with olive oil and slowly sautéed.
The degree of cooking depends upon the dish. For the risotto, the onions (and garlic , if used) are gently cooked until they become just translucent. But for many complex dishes such as osso buco or other braises, for the New Orleans gumbos and jambalayas, and for the Spanish paella, the chef may want a richer start as a base for the sauce and so will continue the cooking process until caramelization occurs (the sugars in the root vegetables become golden or “tanned”). This is not a quick process because if one tries to caramelize the vegetables too quickly over too high a burner, the vegetables will burn, get browned or scorched and will develop bitter off-flavors. So while the simple soffritto for risotto may take only 5-10 minutes, a complex caramelized soffritto can take half an hour, an hour, or even more to prepare. I once attended a week-long cooking school outside of Verona and saw a chef work with a battuto for well over two hours, over very, very low heat, to get the result he desired, but the patience was rewarded with an exquisitely complex set of flavors.
A word about the cooking temperature. What we are aiming for is the slow evaporation of the water from the vegetables to concentrate the taste, and also the slow caramelization of the sugars in the presence of amino acids (Maillard reaction) to develop richer flavor and colors. Mid-heat is too high; it is the lower heat that allows for the “sweating.” It is also not “frying”—that is, not much oil is needed, perhaps only a couple of tablespoons. Stir the vegetables so they are coated with the oil and then turn the heat way down low. Too hot and the onions and garlic (and you!) will become bitter.
The texture of the finished sauce will also depend on how the odori are chopped. For risotto, for example, the preferred degree is a fine chop yielding diced onions about the size of the individual kernels of rice. For a rich osso buco the chop can be very coarse, up to a 1” cube, so that the odori are recognizable as distinguishable bites and tastes in the braise. The important thing to remember is that the chop should be uniform—the size of the diced onion, diced celery and diced carrot should all be about the same size so that the sauce has a uniform texture.
In closing, I offer a time-saving recommendation, accomplished in a weekend at home with nothing better to do: be patient, take the time required, and make up a large batch of properly prepared soffritto. A large batch will take longer to cook to the stage of caramelization than the quick process for risotto because all the water must evaporate off before caramelization can start to take place and also must evaporate off for the flavors to be intensified. If you don’t allow enough time the result is just steamed vegetables without the flavors developed. Store your supply of soffritto in the refrigerator for use during the week when cooking—your prep work is all done! Or freeze some if you make a large quantity, more than you are going to use during the week. Then, when pressed for time but still want rich flavors, take out the prepared soffritto and you are ahead of the game!
By Ronald L. Fenolio
CEO/Proprietor – Veedercrest Estates LLC
Chair – Family Winemakers of California
© 2021 Ronald L. Fenolio
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