FOOD - SEPTEMBER 1995
by Betty Thompson
MY CHILDREN AND I dug our bare toes in the sand, looked out over the blue Caribbean and anticipated our breakfast of thick flour tortillas fried and topped with scrambled eggs and a spicy sofrito. Served alongside were slices of fried plantains and red kidney beans mashed and well seasoned with a lot of garlic and black pepper.
A sofrito is a basic tomato sauce used in Spanish, Latin American and Caribbean Island cooking, particularly Puerto Rico and Cuba. The word comes from the Spanish verb sofreir which means to fry lightly. The sauce is composed of onions, garlic, tomatoes, peppers, herbs, spices and ham, chopped and sauteed in oil. It can be made in quantity and stored in the refrigerator for a few weeks or sauteed at the last minute. If cooked ahead, some cooks prefer to sauté the vegetables and herbs and add the ham just before using.
There are some basic seasoning differences between the sofrito from Spain and the Caribbean and a variety of flavorings within each. Recipes from Latin American countries are often a mixture of the two. Sofrito can be found bottled like salsa in Latin American grocery stores.
The Spanish sofrito is made with good quality Spanish olive oil, onions, garlic, red or green sweet peppers, serrano ham (Italian prosciutto is the nearest available substitute), tomatoes, parsley, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Some additional flavors include thyme, paprika, wine, saffron, ground almonds and Spanish chorizo (a smoked pork and garlic sausage made with a lot of paprika, linguica is an acceptable substitute).
In contrast, the Caribbean sofrito is made with salt pork, annatto seed, onions, garlic, sweet and/or hot peppers, smoked ham, tomatoes, fresh cilantro, oregano, salt and pepper. Some additional flavors include cinnamon, clove, cumin, olives, capers, wine, and lime juice.
Annatto (achiote) are irregularly shaped rusty red seeds from a small flowering tree of tropical America. The seeds, available locally at the North Coast Coop, are used to color cooking oil (margarine is also colored with annatto) and impart a delicate flavor. The most common way to extract the yellow color is to fry the seeds briefly in oil and discard the seeds. Add 1/4 cup annatto seeds to 1/2 cup hot vegetable oil. Simmer for 1 minute; let cool, remove seeds. Use the oil for sauteing the vegetables. In some Latin American countries the seed is ground and used as a spice.
With a good sofrito in the refrigerator, you can take advantage of prime vegetables in season and omit an entire step of preparation for many dishes. Sofrito can be stirred into soups, stews, beans. It can be used to flavor cooked fresh vegetables such as green beans, zucchini, okra, eggplant. Simply spoon the hot sofrito over the steamed vegetables. It can also be spooned over grilled fish, chicken, rabbit, pork, or lamb. Eggs, meat and vegetables can be cooked directly in the sauce.
The popular "Huevos Rancheros" is a combination of eggs and sofrito. Fry eggs, place on a hot corn tortilla and top with hot sofrito or poach the eggs directly in the hot sofrito. To make "Huevos Revueltos" heat the sofrito in a skillet and stir beaten eggs into the sauce and scramble. Serve with hot tortillas and refried beans.
Sofrito tastes delicious over cooked rice, potatoes or pasta with or without cheese. This month's recipes include a basic Caribbean sofrito that can be made in quantity and used as desired, and a Spanish and Mexican dish with the sofrito included.
This recipe for a basic Puerto Rican sauce comes from the Complete Book of Caribbean Cooking by Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz. Use this to season eggs, vegetables grilled meat, soups or beans.
Fry the salt pork dice in a heavy frying pan over medium heat, stirring from time to time, until they have given up all their fat and are crisp and brown. Lift out of the fat with a slotted spoon and reserve. Add the annatto seeds to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, over medium heat for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, strain, discard the seeds and return the fat to the pan.
Add the onions, garlic and green peppers and sauté until the onion is tender but not browned. Add the ham, tomatoes, coriander, oregano, reserved salt pork dice, and pepper to taste. Simmer over low heat for 30 minutes stirring from time to time. Season to taste with salt. Cool and pour into glass jars, cover tightly and refrigerate until needed. Use as directed in recipes. Makes about 5 cups.
SPANISH CHICKEN WITH VEGETABLES
(POLLO A LA CHILINDRON)
Chilindron is an Iberian sofrito in which chicken, lamb, kid, veal or pork can be cooked equally well.
Season chicken with salt and pepper and brown in hot oil. Remove pieces to a plate. Remove excess oil from the pan and add garlic, onions, peppers and ham to the skillet. Saute 5-6 minutes until the vegetables are soft but not brown. Add the tomatoes and paprika and simmer another 5 minutes. Add chicken pieces. Spoon sauce over the top, cover and simmer for about 30 minutes or until tender. Serve with rice and salad.
RED SNAPPER VERA CRUZ STYLE (HUACHINANGO A LA VERACRUZANA)
This dish is an all time favorite. The pungent odors and aroma of the spices and the bite of the jalapeño make it a dish for even those who "don't like fish." The sauce can be prepared in quantity and used for any mild firm-fleshed fish.
To prepare the sofrito, saute the onions and garlic in a little of the olive oil, but do not brown. Add the tomatoes, chilies, olives, cinnamon, cloves, sugar, lemon juice and salt. Simmer on a low heat for about five minutes. Add capers if desired, Cover and set aside until the fish is cooked.
Dust the fish fillets lightly with the seasoned flour and saute in oil until golden brown on both sides and easily flaked with a fork.
Arrange the fish on a heated platter. Spoon the sauce over the fish. Garnish with the chopped parsley or cilantro. Serves 6. Recipe is taken from Adventures in Mexican Cooking from Ortho Books.
BLACK BEAN SOUP
Canned beans and a prepared sofrito can put dinner on the table in a hurry.
Simmer beans, cumin and sofrito together for ten minutes. Serve with hot cooked rice. Top with fresh cilantro and chopped green onion.
Variation: Add 1 cup uncooked rice and 2 cups water to the simmered beans, cumin and sofrito, cover and simmer for 20 minutes until the rice is tender and the liquid absorbed.
Betty Thompson has taught cooking classes locally since 1974.
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