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Soffritto-Mirepoix-Sofrito

IMG_RagBolSoffrittoThrough the haze of jet-lagged sleep the aromas would wake me and lift my tired, but still hungry body to the lunch table. Normally we would arrive at the airport at 7 a.m. and then go straight to bed for a few hours sleep when we reached my in-laws house just northwest of Milano. As lunchtime approached a fragrance would slowly grow and expand throughout the house and before you know it my nose would set off the alarm clock in my stomach.

That fragrance was created by my father-in-law, Aldo, cooking his soffritto as he began to prepare for lunch. Soffritto is that simple combination of sautéed aromatic vegetables that is the basis of a seemingly endless list of Italian dishes. Everything from pasta sauces to ravioli filling to Brasato al Barolo has at its heart a fragrant and flavorful soffritto.
The basic soffritto is equal amounts of chopped celery, carrots and onions slowly cooked in butter or olive oil so they release their flavors and aromatics into the ingredients that are then added. The trick is the temperature of the pan: too cool and you just poach the vegetables in the oil — too hot and you start to caramelize the vegetables. In France they call it mirepoix and in Spain sofrito, but whatever you call this process of cooking aromatic vegetables in fat to create a foundation of flavors for a dish, it is a basic element of good cooking in every cuisine: both for amateurs and professionals.

The word soffritto is a conjugation of the Italian verb soffriggere, or to fry lightly, which is an accurate description. A good soffritto needs a little attention from the cook. A trip to the wine cellar while the vegetables are cooking can result in a burned soffritto. Expect to devote an attentive 10 to 15 minutes to cooking your vegetables. They do not need constant attention and stirring, but they do want a watchful eye. You will know you have it right by the mouthwatering aromas that fill your house.

Soffritto is about flavors. If you buy bland, old vegetables you will get a bland soffritto. Go out of your way to get the freshest most flavorful vegetables available. While carrots, onions and celery are the holy trinity of soffritto, there are as many variations as there are vegetables. Garlic often makes an appearance in southern Italian dishes. Some soffritti include pancetta or other meats in the preparation. In classic risotto recipes, onions stand alone as the soffritto. Remember soffritto is a technique and a concept in flavoring not a specific recipe. Try the recipes below and then get creative. Each serves six as a main course and eight to ten as a first course.

Spaghetti con Pomodori e Soffritto
2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped.
2 large stalks celery with leaves, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
1- 28 oz. can excellent quality crushed tomatoes
1 teaspoon sugar
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 lb. thick spaghetti (avoid very thin spaghetti)
Sea salt
Grana Padano or Parmignano Reggiano cheese for grating

Heat olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat and add celery, onions and carrots. Sauté the vegetables gently for about ten minutes until just before they began to brown, then add sugar and cook for one minute more. Add canned tomatoes and mix well. Cover and slowly simmer for thirty minutes stirring often. Salt to taste.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add 1 heaping tablespoon of salt for every two quarts of water. When the water returns to a boil add the pasta and cook until not quite done.

Bring the heat under the pan with the sauce to high and drain the pasta. Add the pasta to the pan and gently mix the pasta and the sauce. Continue cooking until the pasta is done.

Serve immediately with grated cheese on the side.

Penne con Ragu alla Varano Borghi
1 lb. ground sirloin
1 sweet Italian sausage, skin removed and chopped coarsely
2 large carrots peeled and chopped
1 large onion chopped
2 large celery stalks with leaves, chopped
1- 28 oz. can excellent quality crushed tomatoes
a piece of lemon peel
1 bay leaf
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ lb. unsalted butter
1 cup red wine
1 cup beef or chicken broth
Grana Padano or Parmignano Reggiano cheese for grating
1 lb. penne pasta


Heat and melt the butter in a heavy tall-sided pan over medium heat and add celery, onions and carrots. Sauté the vegetables gently for about ten to fifteen minutes until just before they began to brown then add the ground sirloin and sausage, cook for several minutes more. Add canned tomatoes, wine, broth and mix well. Add bay leaf and lemon peel. Add salt and pepper to taste. Loosely cover and slowly simmer for thirty minutes, then cover tightly and simmer on very low heat for 3 hours stirring often.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add 1 heaping tablespoon of salt for every two quarts of water. When the water returns to a boil add the pasta and cook until not quite done.

Bring the heat under the pan with the sauce to high and drain the pasta. Add the pasta to the pan and gently mix the pasta and the sauce. Continue cooking until the pasta is done.

Serve immediately with the grated cheese on the side.