They're called "humble beginnings" for a reason. The foundation of so many of the world's greatest dishes—from chicken fricassee to jambalaya—is merely a group of un-fancy vegetables that disappear, practically or literally, once they have performed their part. They subsume themselves to the flashier, more obvious members of the company.
The seafood and saffron might be the stars of a paella Valenciana, but what's flavoring all that creamy rice? It starts with something called sofrito, the Spanish mixture of onion, garlic, and tomatoes gently sautéed in a slick of olive oil. As difficult as it is to see in the finished product, you'd definitely miss it more than those clams if it were taken away.
From France's mirepoix (onion, carrot, celery) to Germany's suppengrün (carrot, celeriac, leek) to the famous Holy Trinity of Cajun cooking (onion, celery, green bell pepper), almost every cuisine in the world starts with a common, simple, balanced, vegetable base.
What do these groups of produce have in common? At the most basic level, they begin recipes—from soups to curries to roasts—and lend them flavor. They also often come from a category of vegetables and herbs called aromatics. In the Western world, these might include garlic, onions, carrots, celery, bay leaves, thyme, parsley, and peppercorns, while in Asia you might find green onions, ginger, garlic, and warm spices. Finally, they're almost always sautéed to gently tease out flavors that permeate the rest of the dish. Sofrito and its Italian counterpart, soffritto, literally mean to stir-fry.
In his recent book Cooked, author Michael Pollan spends some time chopping onions and pondering these "unprepossessing" herbs and vegetables, which are most often used in one-pot dishes like braises and soups. "Homely in the best sense," he writes, "pot dishes are about marrying lots of prosaic little things rather than elevating one big thing. In fact, it is the precise combination of these chopped-up plants that usually gives a pot dish its characteristic flavor and cultural identity."
These recipe starters are an ancient and intuitive part of the cooking process, and as such, they completely defy recipization. So don't get stuck on specifics. Even France, perhaps the most rigidly traditional culinary culture among us, doesn't always use the same proportions of onion, carrot, and celery to execute a dish (case in point: the oh-so-French beef bourguignon is made with carrots, onions, garlic, and thyme—no celery needed).
But to start you off, here are some distinctive groupings of aromatics in Western cuisine that are sure to evoke the flavor of certain parts of the globe.
The mirepoix of French cooking is the trio of aromatics you'll hear about most. Salon even published a little fiction about this traditional blend of onion, carrots, and celery in 2000. In the story, Dr. Mirepoix's neighbor invited him over three times: to flavor a bone stock, to accompany potatoes and a roast chicken, and to make a vegetable stock. That's actually a pretty good summation of mirepoix's role.
Mirepoix vegetables are often finely chopped and sautéed, but they can just as easily be used whole or roughly chopped in slow-simmered stocks or braises. When chopping, it helps to be particular about the uniform tiny dice of mirepoix, ensuring even cooking, whether you are planning on simply sweating them, or deeply browning them for a sweeter, heartier flavor. Check out our guides to cutting carrots, onions, and celery.
Recipes with Mirepoix:
Battuto or Soffritto, Italy
Italian Battuto—as the Italian flavor base is called before it is cooked and becomes a soffritto—is kissing cousins to France's mirepoix. It starts with the same foundation of onions, carrots, and celery. Parsley leaves, garlic, and fennel, or sometimes finely diced cured meats like pancetta or prosciutto scraps can find its way into the mix. Of course, every Italian grandmother has their own recipe, and is likely to tell you that all the others are wrong.
Recipes with Battuto:
- Hearty Escarole, Barley, and Parmesan Soup
- Ragú Bolognese
- Italian Honeymoon Soup
- 30-Minute Pasta and Kidney Bean Soup (Pasta e Fagioli)
- Easy Sausage, Kale, and Black Eyed Pea Soup With Lemon and Rosemary
After the sixteenth century, Catalonia in particular embraced that New World fruit, the tomato, and incorporated it—along with bell peppers—with chopped sweet onions and garlic to make sofrito. But the medieval recipe book, Libre de Sent Sovi, proves that in medieval times, the Catalans used what they grew locally to make what is referred to in the 1324 tome as "sofregit." Because very Old World-style dishes ignore the existence of tomato and bell pepper and call for the sweet onions, leeks, carrots, and salt pork of the 1300s, "sofrito" can be a fairly loose term to a Spaniard preparing a meal.
From the Mexican-American border to the tip of Argentina, and on all of the islands in between, Latin America has taken the Spanish sofrito and adapted it to its local offerings. Cuban sofrito tends to look like the Holy Trinity, but with more garlic, while Ecuadorians begin a meal with freshly toasted cumin, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and sweet cubanelle peppers.
Recipes with Sofrito:
- Cuban Picadillo
- Spanish Beef Stew with Pimentón and Piquillo Peppers
- Spanish Chickpea and Spinach Stew with Ginger
- Nicaraguan Arroz con Pollo
In case the umlaut doesn't make it clear, this is Germany's answer to mirepoix. Literally meaning "soup greens," suppengrün typically consists of carrots, celery root, and leeks. Sometimes onions, parsnips, and potatoes are thrown in, and often these are sold pre-bundled in the market, ready to take home, chop, and sweat out in the pot for a stew.
Recipes with Suppengrün:
The Polish włoszczyzna—the translation of which is fantastic: "Italian stuff"—is another variety of soup vegetables with a similar lineup to the suppengrün. Even heartier than the others, a włoszczyzna is likely to focus on cabbage as a primary ingredient.
Recipes with Włoszczyzna:
Holy Trinity, United States
Ah, Cajun and Creole cookery—that French-derived cuisine, unbounded and filled with Louisiana salt air and cayenne spice. At its core you find the Holy Trinity, a foundation for the best eating in New Orleans.
You don't find as many regional variations within the Holy Trinity; this aromatic grouping doesn't change much. The official trio is onion, celery, and green bell pepper. Often, by adding a bit of flour and whisking, a roux is built right on top of these sweet and colorful aromatics to form the base of gumbo, étouffée, and other famous Cajun and Creole dishes.
Recipes with the Holy Trinity:
- Grilled Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya
- Cajun Gumbo With Chicken and Andouille Sausage
- Quicker Chicken and Okra Gumbo
Recaíto, Puerto Rico
Many dishes in Puerto Rico begin with the perfumed flavor of culantro. Also called "blessed thistle," the long, jagged-edged leaf herb has a similar taste to cilantro. For this Caribbean island's sofrito, known as recaíto, culantro leaves are minced down to confetti size and joined by ajices dulces, small but essential chilies in Puerto Rican cuisine. Add onions, cubanelles, garlic, and cilantro, and you have a mild, bright-green paste that packs stews and rice dishes with a fresh herbal punch.
Recipes with Recaíto: