The intoxicating aroma of frying sofrito is one of my favorite food smells. I absolutely love it… and all the foods that you typically find it cooked with – rice and beans, meat, chicken, and fish. I even pour just fried sofrito and olive oil over hot tostones (fried green plantains), maduros (sweet fried plantains), and boiled yucca (cassava). And if I get desperate, it is a great dipping sauce of plain Lay’s potato chips.
When I was a teenager, I use to buy jarred sofrito – I favored a particularly piquant, salty variety sold buy Kirby, which I chose because I could visually discern all of the ingredients by looking at the jar. The Kirby brand had minced pieces of onions, tomatoes, peppers, garlic, and herbs. The other brands of sofrito were pureed, brick red concoctions that looked mushy and indiscernible. I would stir tablespoonfuls into red beans and white rice. This livened up a very boring vegetarian diet; plus it helped me to fall in love with beans in a way I never could before I stopped eating meat. I would use the jarred condiment as a spread on smoked tofu sandwiches, drop it into vegetable soups, and sometimes dot it across my mushroom pizza.
One day, the market was out of stock of my Kirby brand sofrito – Ack! So I had to either, choose another brand of sofrito, or make my own. I was adept in the kitchen by then, so I decided on making my own sofrito. I wheeled my cart to the produce department and picked up all the things I thought I needed for the sofrito. Alas, I did not know what green herb Kirby sofrito contained. After careful consideration, I decided on curly parsley (not a wise choice).
Once home, I minced the onion, tomatoes, peppers, garlic, and parsley; placed them all in a pan with olive oil, salt, and pepper; and decided to cook over high heat until I could achieve the proper flavor and consistency. When the tomato started to burn and stick to the pan, I lowered the flame and added some water to the pan, which seemed to give all of the vegetables the cue to turn into mush. I remember thinking that this was not sofrito; this was a brick red concoction of mushy nastiness! I threw everything in the trash in frustration… and hunger.
Days later, I returned to the market and found that they had re-stocked the Kirby brand sofrito. I could not bring myself to buy it. I had to come out victorious in making my own sofrito. No longer a want, now I needed to know how to make my own. So once again, I wheeled my cart over to the produce department and picked up the ingredients reading from the Kirby jar – that green herb was oregano! There was no fresh oregano in the market so I grabbed a jar of dried oregano. While on the aisle, I grabbed a can of tomato paste as well. Placing the jarred sofrito back on the shelf, I went home to try this again.
Before the second attempt, I also decided to take out a little insurance. I went to the library and checked out a book on Cuban cuisine since this had been the food where my palate could discern the flavor of sofrito. It turns out that sofrito is the base flavor of Cuban cooking, much like the French’s mirepoix of onions, celery, and carrots.
While I had the ingredients to make it, I needed to learn the technique, which takes anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes AFTER the vegetables where chopped depending on how much sofrito you are making. Armed with knowledge, I was more confident to start the second attempt and I achieved success. With addition of a few more spices and more practice, I had mastered making a sofrito that was more vibrant with flavor and soul (and less salty than the jarred one that I loved for so long).
My Recipe: CUBAN-STYLE SOFRITO
2 large onions, finely chopped
1 med red bell pepper, finely chopped
1 med green bell pepper, finely chopped
8 – 10 garlic cloves, finely chopped
¼ c olive oil
3 – 3 T tomato paste
½ t ground cumin, more if you like
½ t dried oregano, more if you like
2 dried bay leaves
kosher salt, to taste
fresh cracked black pepper, to taste
heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat; add chopped onions; cook until they begin to soften, about 2 minutes, stirring constantly
add the chopped peppers; cook until they begin to soften, about 2 minutes, stirring constantly
add chopped garlic, dried bay leaf, ground cumin, and dried oregano; cook for 4 minutes, stirring constantly; lower heat to medium
cook vegetables for 2 more minutes; allowing your kitchen (and home) to be filled with a warm, spicy, fragrant smell – this is sofrito bay-bee!
add the tomato paste; mashing it up with the back of your spoon to blend with the olive oil; reduce the heat to low and simmer everything for another 5 minutes allowing the flavors to meld together; and stirring to prevent sticking
add kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste
Cool the sofrito completely, place in an airtight container, and refrigerate for up to 4 – 5 days. If you do not plan to use it soon, freeze it.
One way to freeze the sofrito is to pour the cooled sofrito into an ice tray; freeze into ice cubes; pop out the cubes and transfer them to a freezer bag; using cubes of sofrito as needed. I prefer not to ruin my ice tray – because sofrito-flavored ice is NEVER good in iced tea, lemonade, juice, or water.
I pour the sofrito in a freezer bag; lay the bag flat in the freezer, push out all air and freeze in a flat sheet. This may take several bags depending on how much sofrito you make. When I need sofrito, I simply open the freezer bag and break off a chunk of sofrito from the sheet…this saves me from ruining an ice tray.
Besides Cuban-style sofrito, there is also a Puerto Rican-style sofrito, which uses some of the same ingredients but invites more very tasty characters to the mix – cilantro, culantro (sometimes called recao), cubanelle peppers, capers, and green olives. Cubanelle peppers are a sweet, long pepper. Culantro is a long broad herb that, to me, tastes like cilantro on steroids with an oregano sidekick. You can also use aji dulces, which are small sweet peppers in Puerto Rican-style sofrito as well. They look like a miniature scotch bonnet (habanera) pepper but they have none of the fire.
The method to making Puerto Rican-style sofrito is different as well – quicker and easier actually.
My Recipe: PUERTO RICAN-STYLE SOFRITO
1 large onion, peeled
1 med red bell pepper, seeds removed
1 cubanelle pepper, seeds removed
1 med head of garlic
1 bunch fresh cilantro
1 bunch fresh culantro (recao)
2 T capers
12 small Spanish olives
1 T dried oregano
½ t ground cumin, optional
olive oil, to taste
kosher salt, to taste
fresh cracked black pepper, to taste
Throw all of the ingredients into a food processor, except the olive oil; pulse until everything is uniformly finely chopped, scrapping down the sides
transfer mixture to a bowl; stir in olive oil, kosher salt, and fresh cracked black pepper to taste
Place in an airtight container, and refrigerate for up to 4 – 5 days. If you do not plan to use it soon, freeze it.
You can store Puerto Rican-style sofrito using the same method above; or freeze it, using the same method above.
Typically, you would fry Puerto Rican-style sofrito in a little olive oil when you began cooking a dish; add a few tablespoons to a marinade; add a few tablespoons in the last 5 minutes of a simmering soup or pot of beans. It also makes a quick pan sauce for a pan-fried or broiled piece of fish; or a great topping on just grilled steak, pork chops, and fresh chorizo.
And yes, I dip plain Lay’s potato chips in this sofrito as well.