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Sofrito Provides the Zest

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"Faye Levy's International Vegetable Cookbook" won a James Beard Cookbook Award in 1994

In most cuisines there is a favorite medley of aromatic vegetables that cooks put in the pot no matter what they’re making. In France it’s mirepoix: diced onions, carrots and celery sauteed with thyme and a bay leaf. Italian cooks have a similar mixture called soffrito, which is more likely to contain garlic and parsley than thyme or bay leaf.

Spain also has something it calls sofrito, but it’s completely different. It consists of sauteed onions, garlic and tomatoes and resembles a thick, chunky tomato sauce. Bacon, salt pork or other meats used to be included in these mixtures so that the vegetables sauteed in their fat, but now oil or butter is often used instead.

The Spaniards brought their sofrito to the New World and it became popular in the Caribbean, especially Cuba and Puerto Rico. Although the name remained the same, the recipe changed. Peppers were added, usually sweet ones but sometimes hot chiles as well. In some versions, cilantro was included. Tomatoes became less prominent and sometimes were omitted.

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The Caribbean sofrito is a delightful preparation to keep on hand. It can be stirred into cooked food just before serving for a zesty fresh taste, or it can impart a more mellow flavor when it’s added to stews as they simmer.

In some Caribbean countries (and in areas of the United States where Caribbean cuisine is prevalent), sofrito is such an important staple that it’s sold ready-made.

Made with little or no tomato, sofrito resembles a saute. When a larger proportion of tomato is added, it’s used as sauce, dipping sauce or marinade. Tomato-rich sofrito is also used for simmering fish or shellfish, sometimes with the addition of white wine, and as a braising sauce for meat. With or without tomato, sofrito makes a tasty filling for omelets or a bed for baked eggs.

Caribbean cooks add sofrito to the bean pot about 30 minutes before the beans are done. With rice, they often add sofrito to the pan at the start. Less tomato, or none at all, is used in the sofrito when it is cooked with rice or beans, probably because the acidity of tomatoes can prevent starchy foods from cooking evenly.

For a quick dish, stir sofrito into a pot of cooked rice or vegetables or heated canned beans to add a bold, fresh accent. I love sofrito with eggplant or summer squash tossed with pasta.

CARIBBEAN SOFRITO

Instead of a green bell pepper, you can use an Anaheim or other mild green pepper. If you prefer a slightly spicy sofrito, add a minced jalapen~o along with the garlic. Sofrito will keep 2 to 3 days in a covered container in the refrigerator, or it may be frozen.

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2 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, chopped

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 green bell pepper, diced

3 large cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro, optional

3/4 pound tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced, or 1 (14 1/2-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained

Heat oil in large skillet. Add onion and peppers and saute over medium-low heat 7 minutes, stirring often. Stir in garlic and cilantro and saute, stirring, 30 seconds.

Add tomatoes and cook over medium-high heat, stirring often, about 7 minutes or until mixture is thick. Use immediately or refrigerate.

Makes enough sofrito to flavor 3 to 4 servings of beans, rice or pasta.

Each of 4 servings contains about:

136 calories; 13 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 10 grams fat; 13 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 1.22 grams fiber.

SPAGHETTINI WITH SOFRITO AND EGGPLANT

This is a terrific dish for late summer when peppers, eggplants and tomatoes are at their best. Japanese or Chinese eggplant makes the prettiest slices, but you can substitute a small Italian eggplant and quarter the slices before sauteing them. If your family doesn’t like cilantro, omit it from the sofrito recipe above and add fresh parsley or basil to the cooked pasta. If you like, sprinkle each serving with a little freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

Caribbean Sofrito

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2c pound Japanese eggplant, unpeeled, sliced about 1/4-inch thick

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

1/2 pound spaghettini

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro or Italian parsley

Heat sofrito in saucepan and cover to keep warm.

Heat oil in large skillet. Add eggplant slices, in batches if necessary, sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste and saute over medium-high heat until tender when pierced with fork, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer to plate and cover to keep warm.

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Cook spaghettini, uncovered, in large pan of boiling salted water over high heat until tender but firm to the bite, about 7 minutes. Drain and transfer to heated serving bowl. Add sofrito and toss.

Reserve few eggplant slices for garnish. Add remaining eggplant to pasta and toss lightly. Taste and adjust seasoning. Sprinkle with cilantro and garnish with reserved eggplant slices.

Makes 2 to 3 entree or 4 appetizer-course servings.

Each of 4 servings contains about:

652 calories; 174 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 16 grams fat; 112 grams carbohydrates; 19 grams protein; 3.30 grams fiber.

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