Soffritto ~ The Holy Trinity of Italian Cuisine
A holy trinity in cooking is simply a combination of three aromatic ingredients, whether they are vegetables, herbs or spices, that are gently sauteed together to provide a flavor base for other ingredients to build upon. These ingredients are usually cooked in either butter or olive oil to release their flavors and are used commonly when creating soups, sauces, stews, or braises. In Italian cuisine, this holy trinity is also called a “soffritto”, “odori”, or “battuto” and usually include onions, celery, and carrots in a 2:1:1 ratio which in france is called mirepoix. In most of Italy this soffritto is gently sauteed in olive oil, although in some northern Italian regions such as Lombardy or Veneto, butter may be used as well.
Although some may debate that the holy trinity of Italian cuisine is really tomato, garlic, and basil, most do agree that the vegetable combination, or soffritto is more commonly used as the flavor base for many dishes. These vegetables are cooked for about 5 minutes until they soften and become “dorata” or golden in color, at which time other ingredients are added such as rice, meat, broth, tomatoes etc.
Soffritto is the Italian word for “under-fried” or “fried slowly” and perfectly describes the process of gently cooking the vegetables in oil to soften them and release their flavor. At times, other ingredients are also included into the primary three vegetables and these could include parsley, leeks, garlic, chopped pancetta, or other fresh, chopped herbs. Purists would say you must use a mezzaluna, which is a crescent shaped knife that fits into a rounded wooden board to chop your soffritto, but really any sharp chef’s knife works just fine.
One tip I learned from experience was to always keep some chopped soffritto in my freezer for when I felt the urge to cook. This cuts down my prep time considerably, and I always know I have that important holy trinity in my freezer ready and waiting to be used. Here in Umbria, when you visit any outdoor market and purchase vegetables, you are kindly asked if you would like some “odori”. Not being one to ever turn down fresh vegetables I always accept, and the stall owner will throw into my bag a stalk or two of celery, a couple of carrots, an onion, and sometimes a small bunch of parsley. Since I love visiting these markets sometimes multiple times in one week, I have in the past found that I was collecting my soffritto ingredients faster than I could use them and they were in fact crowding my refrigerator. What I did was to chop together all my carrots, celery, onions, and as well as some parsley and divide these chopped vegetables into small freezer bags. Into the freezer they went, and now when I am in the mood to cook I simply grab a handful of my frozen already chopped soffritto and saute it in a little olive oil. The vegetables do not suffer from the freezing process and I always have them on hand when needed. Yes, I know we always say fresh is always better (I usually agree!), but there are times in life when convenience may take precedence and if it helps encourage you to cook more often because it cuts down the time spent in the kitchen than I say go for it.
If you love to cook as I do, I highly recommend that you spend a couple of hours chopping together some onion, celery, and carrots in the all important ratio of 2:1:1 and store the chopped vegetables in your freezer in air-tight bags. I generally cut my vegetables quite small (about 1/2 inch or less) so I can use them in anything including a delicate risotto dish. As well as cutting down prep time which is always important in today’s busy times, you will always know that you have this flavor base handy when you want to throw together a quick pasta sauce, soup, or even create a crock-pot stew.