We’ve just enjoyed our first snow of the season, one good enough to warrant plowing by the county and some cautious driving for a day or two. Nothing nails down the arrival of winter quite like that first storm. Our critters make it known, in no uncertain terms, that this means it’s time for some serious hunkerin’ down, and frankly, when the wind is ripping out of the north from the Fraser river valley at 30 knots with gusts on toward 50, I couldn’t agree more. That means it’s also time for serious, rib sticking comfort food, like soups, stews, casseroles, and such. Doing those dishes up right means we’ve got to pay special attention to the humble beginnings of such dishes – the aromatic bases.
So, what’s with the humble moniker, first off? Well, it’s an honest nod to the fact that what we’re going to employ in this role is rarely sexy stuff. The stars of this show are, in fact, the things that all too often languish in our kitchen. This is the stuff many of us buy at the market because it’s pretty and we have big ideas on shopping day, only to find, many days later, they’ve gone by the wayside – Carrots, celery, onion, peppers, garlic, ginger, fennel, leeks, turnips, parsnips, celeriac, and tomato, to name a good few. In that comfort food I mentioned, these lowly contributors will often play second fiddle, and may, in many iterations, be difficult to identify within a dish – Humble beginnings, indeed.
Yet without these hidden gems adding their je ne sais quoi to our winter fare, what we get is a pale reflection of the real thing. They’re called aromatic bases for a reason. In addition to key vegetables, aromatics may include herbs and spices, and occasionally a little protein as well. Gently sautéed or sweated in a little oil or stock, the magic is released – Our dishes gain the satisfying depth and breadth they demand. Literally every cuisine around the world employs some form of aromatic base, from here in the states to the farthest reaches of China. Some are more famous than others, some quite obscure, but no less worthy of exploration. Something as simple as a one veggie change in a standard mix can bring about entirely new flavors, and in many iterations, that’s exactly what has happened. Let’s have a look at a few of these.
The French Mirepoix is arguably the most well known aromatic mix out there – Technically, (and in keeping with classic French cooking’s fussy reputation), mirepoix is two parts onion to one part each celery and carrot, and the portions are weighed to assure an accurate blend – That’s more precision than you need or likely want at home, so eyeballing or volume measuring those proportions is just fine. So, whataya do with mirepoix? More like what can’t you do with it. First and foremost in my mind is making stock and broth – Without it, you’ve got bupkis, with it, you’ve got depth and breadth of flavor like nobody’s business. D’accord, it’s also a base for soups, sauces, and stews, a bed for roasting meats and poultry, a great salad blend, and the list goes on. If you’re a regular here, you know how often you see us use it. ‘Nuff said.
In Spain, the signature mix pays homage to gifts from the new world that arrived many centuries ago, namely tomatoes and chiles. Initially viewed with some suspicion, the locals eventually recognizing the error of their ways and adopted these gifts as the heart of their go-to aromatic base. Before that, especially up north in Catalonia, the signature mix was onion, leek, carrot and a touch of salt pork. Afterwards, tomato, green chile (Mild, but not sweet – Anaheims or mild Hatch are perfect), onion, and garlic, with a little olive oil and paprika became the thing – Sofrito, which still rules the roost. This kind of blend spread across the Spanish empire, and as a result, everything from the tip of South America through Mexico and the Caribbean employs some variation on the theme. From the Spanish dishes that blend indigenous cuisine with Moorish and new world influence, to Cuban picadillo, it’s everywhere you want to be.
My favorite variation on sofrito comes from Puerto Rico, where I was introduced to it as a kid. Recaíto is the name, and it looks absolutely nothing like the Spanish stuff – it’s fueled by Culantro, (eryngium foetidum), or foul thistle. That’s a cilantro cousin, but much more pungent – stronger in all the aspects that cause some folks to not like either herb. Combined with aji dulce, (a small local pepper that looks suspiciously like a scotch bonnet, but is sweet and mild), onions, garlic, and a little cubanelle chile for a touch of heat, you’ve got a green sauce made in heaven. That alone with good rice is absolutely delicious. It’s also great as a marinade for proteins, and as a base for, you guessed it, soups and stews. Recaíto is perfect stuff to stick in an ice cube tray and freeze – Instant inspiration at your finger tips.
Around the corner in Italy, the base of bases looks something like France’s, but naturally is different enough to brook argument over who came up with what first, (Don’t get me, or all them folk, started, OK?) It’s fundamentally the same as mirepoix, but with important twists – It’s called Battuto when it’s raw, and soffritto when cooked (I think the extra consonants are there to make sure you truly understand that this ain’t Spain). Onion, carrot, celery, parsley, and garlic, sautéed in olive oil. In keeping with Italian temperament, there are no recognized ratios, and if you ask, you’ll get a blank stare, a loaded shrug, and raised eyebrows – Translation – Do what you like, it’s your food. What to do with the raw blend? Make a big ol’ batch and freeze it in single use sized portions – Then you’ve got your base ready when you’re short on time and long on inspiration. Finely dice a little smoked ham and mash that together with your battuto – Toss that in a pan with olive oil as the start of an epic pasta sauce – Capiche? We can’t leave Italy without a nod to the third variant and coolest variant of their aromatic base concept, Odori. When I was in Italy many moons ago, shopping with my Sis who studied there, a trip to the market for vegetables included the question from the vendor, ‘vuoi qualche odore?’ Literally, do you want some smells? If you nodded, they’d toss a carrot, a stalk of celery, a little parsley and basil in your bag, gratis – That was just a little something to get things going once you got back home – Toss it in a pot with water and make whatever you like – It’s your food. How sweet is that? Grazie, mille grazie.
Portugal has heavenly stuff called Refogado – onion, garlic, chiles and tomato, though there are more than a few cooks there who would refute that, and point to onion, garlic, saffron, and smoked paprika as the true mix, (and truth be told, that’s my fave) – I’d say you’re hard pressed to lose going either way. This mix is amazing with seafood, which is no surprise, or course, but good with much more than just that.
Here in the States, we have one true base we can lay claim to, thanks to the Cajun folk – It’s called the Holy Trinity – onion, celery, and green pepper, and really, nothing else, although some folk do like to whip a little roux right in with that as it cooks, to kind of get a leg up on things, yeah? The usual ratio has a couple of camps – those who do equal measures of each, and those who portion like mirepoix, 50% onion, 25% pepper and celery. Whip that up, and jambalaya, gumbo, and anything else your heart desires is on tap.
How about some of the lesser known versions? Well, there’s suppengrün in Germany, which means soup greens and is perfect for same – It’s carrot, celery root, and leek, (and for the record, celery root is the root of the celery you buy in the store, and while related, it is not the same as celeriac). This stuff goes wonderfully with silky potato soup, or braised beef and cabbage.
There’s a version in Hungary that employs onion, cabbage, and paprika – I think that begs for sausage and potatoes, and I’m willing to bet nobody over there would argue much with that.
Although the cuisine of China is highly regionalized, one could land on scallion, ginger, and garlic for their more or less universal trinity. Heck, that combo with nothing more than good soy sauce is amazing in and of itself – From dipping sauce, to moisture for fried rice, to marinade for pork or chicken, you’re in like Flynn.
In India, garlic, ginger and onion would work. Just set your mind’s eye on that, and all sorts of things come to mind – From chick peas to chicken, that blend will rock.
Jamaica could be well represented by garlic, scallion, and thyme – Add that to lime juice and some hot chiles, and the sky’s the limit.
Most West African cuisines share chile, onion, and tomato as their big trio, and here again, what a great launching pad. Tofu, rice, veggies, chicken, beef – Yes to all of the above.
In Thailand, you’d be on the money with lemon grass, kafir lime, and galangal, for which ginger is a reasonable substitute. Marinate shrimp, chicken, or beef. Rice dishes, soups and stews.
Now, none of this veggie laden listing is meant to state in any way that This Is The Way It Must Be Done. Even with mirepoix, there’s poetic license. I’ll add two caveats to that – One, cut your veggies to the same size, whatever that is – That’ll assure even cooking, and Two – Season your base lightly with salt and pepper when you cook it – That’ll do much to bring those flavors to their fullest.
What it does mean is that you’ve now got a solid base from a whole bunch of cuisines to springboard from. While there are herbs here and there in the stuff above, know this – Just as every Italian Momma makes the best sauce, period, every one of them does it differently, and so should you. Use what you like, it’s your food. Not sure if something goes with that combo? Build a tiny little sample and try it – If you like it, go wild.
I just posted a bunch of pics of split pea soup the way we do it, which includes lemon zest and juice – A bunch of people asked, “Lemon, with split pea soup?” The answer is yup, we love it – That lemon brings a brightness to what can be a heavy soup, elevates the herbs we use, and helps cut the fat of the ham a bit too – If that sounds good to you, try it. If you don’t like lemon, try lime, orange, grapefruit, whatever floats your boat. And for the record, the aromatic base for that is shallot, garlic, celery, and carrot, and it rocks.