Thursday, June 24, 2010

Sofrito, the Indispensable Ingredient

Sofrito may not be a word that trips off your tongue when talking about Mexican food, but it ought to be. It is as important to the flavor and texture of many dishes as chiles, cumin, adobo-- you name it. And, like many of Mexico's favorite dishes, it's very easy to make!

Sofrito is a Spanish word referring to a combination of aromatic ingredients which have been finely diced and slowly sauteed or braised in cooking oil. Within the context of Spanish cuisine, sofrito consists of garlic, onion, and tomatoes cooked in olive oil, and it is used as the base for many dishes. Various versions of sofrito are in use all along the Mediterranean, in Latin America, the Caribbean and even the Philippines, under a variety of names.

In Mexico the dish generally follows the original Spanish context, but it can also be made with other ingredients, such as garlic, tomatillos, cilantro and onions to make a pesto-like salsa verde to swirl into soups and dipping sauces. For a great pozole, garlic, onions and annatto seeds are a great combination (the annatto turns it bright orange). The word is kind of loosey-goosey in that way, and additional ingredients are often used depending on the cook and the region.

I like to add a diced red bell pepper to the mix, or maybe a few cubanelle peppers and I also like LOTS of garlic. And maybe a touch of cumin now and then. I use it in everything from Mexican or yellow rice, chili con carne and various soups to sauteed shrimp and the delicious stewed chicken dish that starts its culinary journey fried (Pollo Frito). Try it on its own over spaghetti or fettucini with some Parmesan sprinkled on top for a light dinner. Delicious!

One of the great things about sofritos is their versatility. Plus, you can cook it up and use it immediately, or blend it into a puree in a food processor and freeze it for future use (put it in ice-cube trays; when frozen, put the cubes into a zip-lock bag). In some versions, you simply puree the raw ingredients and use it that way, without cooking it first at all.

I prefer it cooked because of the added flavor cooking adds. The idea is to "sweat" the vegetables over a moderate heat so they soften without browning, and I like to cook it long enough that the vegetables almost melt, a half hour or even longer.

Here then is the basic recipe. Use your imagination for adding it to other Mexican recipes-- or even non-Mexican recipes. And if you want to freeze some for future use, double or triple the recipe!


  • 1/4 cup olive, vegetable, or annatto oil
  • 2 medium yellow onions, diced
  • 5 to 20 cloves garlic, peeled and minced (the more garlic the better, for me!)
  • 5 big red ripe tomatoes, chopped (save as much of the juice as possible)
  • 1 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded and diced
  • 3 to 4 cubanelle peppers, diced (optional)
  • 1 bunch cilantro, washed and chopped (optional)
  • 1/2 tsp. cumin (optional)

Heat oil in heavy skillet over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, and peppers and sauté 1 to 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Make sure it doesn't brown, you want it just to get limp. Add the tomatoes with their juice, and the cilantro and cumin. Stirring frequently, cook until the vegetables are nearly "melted", anywhere from 15 to 40 minutes, depending on how you like it. Then taste it and add a pinch of salt if you need it.

Remove from heat, and it's ready to use! Add the appropriate amount of the finished product immediately to whatever dish you are preparing (half a cup to your chili or soup recipe, for instance, or the whole thing to stew a chicken), or refrigerate up to 3 days. (Or puree and freeze it!)

NOTE: Depending on the dish you want to use this with, you can add things such as diced ham or bacon. That's particularly good spooned over eggs for breakfast, or added to rice. Use your imagination!

Buen provecho!

If you have a favorite recipe for a Mexican or Mexican-inspired dish, I'd love to add it to our recipe box! email (and put "recipe" in the subject box so I'll know what it's about)


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