Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Power of the Sofrito

Folks in the culinary world are always talking about "depth of flavor," but what exactly do they mean by this?  Quite simply, you are trying to get the most bang for of your buck and coax out as much of the delicious goodness from your food.

One of the best ways of achieving great depth of flavor in your cooking is through braising, a process of cooking something for a long period of time in liquid.  AND, one of the best ways to braise is to start with a sofrito.  A sofrito is a combination of aromatics, such as onions, garlic, and celery, that are chopped up super fine and cooked for a long period of time.  A staple in many different cuisines, this slow cooking process caramelizes the natural sugars in the veggies resulting in a rich, dark flavor that is perfect as a base for soups and sauces.

At this time of year, when farmers markets are practically overflowing with eggplant, I like to make a large batch of Eggplant Ragout and freeze it for future use.  This hearty, earthy sauce is a wonderful substitute for traditional marinara.  Use it in lasagna, as a sauce for grilled mushrooms or tofu, or add cannellini beans and fresh herbs and serve over grilled bread for a rustic, peasant meal.

Yes, it takes time to prepare, but you will have a TON of sauce (about 8 cups) that freezes so well for future culinary adventures that it is well worth the time.  Patience, my friend...patience.

Eggplant Ragout
Eggplant Ragout with Yellow Tomatoes and Cannellini on Grilled Bread

2 large eggplants
3 carrots (peeled, chopped into 1" pieces)
3 celery ribs (chopped into 1" pieces)
1 red bell pepper (chopped)
5 cloves garlic
1 6oz can of organic tomato paste
1 cup dry red wine (optional)
3 cups vegetable stock (plus 1 cup is you omit the wine)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 bay leaves
10 sprigs of thyme
4 sprigs of oregano
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper (or more to your liking)

Preheat oven to 450.  Using a fork, poke holes in the eggplant and place on a baking sheet.  Roast in the oven until the insides are all roasty toasty goodness and the outside looks like a deflated balloon.  About one hour.

Combine carrots, celery, bell pepper, and garlic in a food processor.  Pulse until a moderately chunky paste forms.  You may need to do this in batches.  This will look kind of soupy, but remember you have just mashed up a whole lot of veggies with a high water content.

Over a medium flame, heat oil in a heavy Dutch oven.  I use cast iron for this.  Transfer mixture and brown that veggie paste, stirring occasionally and careful not to burn the veggies. This takes some time, about 30-45 minutes.  Season with salt, pepper, and crushed red.  Be sure to taste and adjust the seasonings!  After about 15 minutes, when some of the liquid starts to reduce, add bay leaves and a bundle of thyme and oregano.

Once the veggies have caramelized, add tomato paste and...brown it.  This should take about 5 minutes.  Once you have a fragrant glop on your hands, de glaze the pan with the wine.  Reduce liquid by half (this is important other wise your sauce will taste like wine).  Add vegetable stock, bring to a boil, and simmer.  Remove bay leaves and herb bundle.


By this point, your eggplant should be roasted.  Remove from oven and cool slightly so that you can handle it.  Slice eggplant lengthwise.  Scoop out the flesh and add to the sauce, discarding skins.  Here is where an immersion blender comes in handy to smooth out the sauce.  If you do not have one, puree eggplant in a food processor before adding it to the sauce.  The ragout should still be a bit chunky.  If thinner sauce is desired, add water until you have attained the desired consistency.

Ladle sauce into air tight containers.  Keeps in the fridge for about 4 days, freezer for 3 months.

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