Flavor Bases Give You Scratch Cook Confidence

Flavor Bases Give You Scratch Cook Confidence

A flavor base is the taste at the heart of any cuisine. In Latino cooking, it’s a sofrito; in Italy, it’s also a sofrito, but Italian; in France, a mirepoix. If you learn to prepare these foundational recipes, you’ll be able to throw together a dish without a recipe that tastes so authentic, your guests will swear you went to Cordon Bleu.

The trick of a flavor base is the ratio of the ingredients. The holy trinity is two parts onions, one part bell peppers, one part celery. As long as the ratio is correct, your flavor base will taste right. The bases are very forgiving, so a few tablespoons too much of one ingredient won’t ruin the recipe.

Flavor bases are elastic, so you can customize your version. I’m a pretty good Cajun cook but my holy trinity is a variation on the traditional New Orleans flavor base. I use a mix of poblano, jalapeno, bell peppers and a handful of savory heirlooms I grow. I mix white and purple onions and sometimes add in some shallots. As long as the ratio is solid, you can make each flavor base your own.

Sofrito: the Latino Flavor Base

Classic Latino dishes like Cuban black beans, Arroz con Pollo, and Ropa Vieja get their magic from building on a flavor base of onions, peppers, garlic, and cilantro.

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Mexican Flavor

Sofrito Flavor Base

  • Author: Bull Garlington
  • Prep Time: 10
  • Cook Time: 10
  • Total Time: 20 minutes
  • Method: Saute
  • Cuisine: Latino

Take your black beans and rice or your ropa viejo to a new level by learning this vital foundation of Latino cooking. If you know how to build a solid sofrito, you can make up Latino dishes on the spot.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups of plum or roma tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 cup of the hot pepper of your choice, like a jalapeno, seeded and chopped
  • 1 cup of the sweet pepper of your choice, like a green or red bell pepper or a cubano pepper
  • 1 cup of a medium white onion, diced
  • 1 cup of a a red onion, diced
  • 1 cup of cilantro, with the stems, chopped
  • 1 head of garlic
  • 1 tablespoon oil

Optional spices that aren’t really optional

  • teaspoon cumin
  • salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. Add all the ingredients into a food processor or blender, blend until all the ingredients are pureed
  2. Heat the oil in a medium pan until shimmering; add the sofrito. Cook until the sofrito is aromatic and had become more of a paste.

Notes

Sofrito uses a very forgiving ratio of 2:1:1:1:1 so feel free to modify it as you like, just try to keep the ratio essentially the same. As long as your chopped onions add up to two cups of chopped onions, you can use as many varieties as you like. Same with the peppers. Like it hotter? Use some Scotch Bonnets in there. Want a smokier flavor? Use half cumin, half powdered anjo chile.

Mirepoix: the taste of France

Mix onions, carrots, and celery together and you have the ground floor of every French dish. The flavor base was named after Charles Pierre Gaston François, Duc de Mirepoix (1699-1757) by his head chef whose name is, of course, lost to history because he was a chef. But it was such a hit it became de riguer in every kitchen in France. If you don’t use it in a French dish, then sacre bleu!

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Mirepoix the Flavor Base of French Cooking

  • Author: Bull Garlington
  • Prep Time: 10
  • Cook Time: 10
  • Total Time: 20 minutes
  • Method: Saute
  • Cuisine: French

Learn this flavor base and you’ll be able to knock out a delicious French dish from a recipe or with just whatever you have in the fridge. You’ll cook like you gradutated from le Cordon Bleu. REMEMBER THE RATIO!

Ingredients

  • 2 onions, diced
  • 1 stalk of celery, diced
  • 1 carrot, diced
  • 1 tablespoon of butter

Instructions

  1. Heat the oil to medium in a pan
  2. Sauté the mirepoix slowly so you don’t brown any of the vegetables.

Notes

The trick with a mirepoix is to cook it low and slow. You don’t want to brown the mixture. Instead, you are sweating the flavors out into the butter and marrying them all together to create a base flavor. Once the veggies are properly tender, you can add a splash of white wine, maybe some chicken, or beef, or pork, or mimes–whatever tastes French to you. Honestly, you can do almost anything on top of this mix and it tastes French. Remember the simple ratio of 2:1:1 and you can swap onions for shallots or leeks,use different kinds of carrots, and go crazy with your celery.

The Holy Trinity: Flavor Base for Cajun Cuisine

Now you’re getting into my kitchen. I am an amateur Cajun chef (my Jambalaya will make you cry; my red beans and rice will cause you to swoon and talk with an accent) and this is where I start almost every dish. New Orleans and the surrounding bayous were settled by French trappers and hunters so it’s not surprising their flavor base is a riff on a Mirepoix.

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The Holy Trinity

  • Author: Bull Garlington
  • Prep Time: 10
  • Cook Time: 10
  • Total Time: 20 minutes
  • Method: Saute
  • Cuisine: Cajun

Even if you weren’t born on the bayou, you can cook like you were if you learn the holy trinity. It uses the same ratio as a Mirepoix, swapping carrots for bell peppers. I like to mix in different colored bell peppers (yellow, orange, green, red) when I make it and my onions are a collection of shallots, spanish, white, and red.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups of onions, chopped
  • 1 cup of celery, chopped
  • 1 cup of bell peppers, chopped
  • tablespoon of oil

Optional flavoring and spices

  • two cloves garlic, finely minced
  • Cajun spices
  • salt and pepper

Instructions

  1. Chop the ingredients to the same size dice
  2. Heat oil in a pan, add Holy Trinity and sauté until rendered very tender but not browned.
  3. Add garlic and spices just a few minutes before you finish
  4. Salt and pepper to taste

Notes

Dice your veggies to suit your dish. Jambalaya is a visually impressive, highly textured dish so large dice is good. But red beans and rice cooks all day so dicing your vegetables as finely as you can allows them to almost melt into the beans. When you cook the trinity matters too. Cook your meat first, then use the same pan for the vegetables. As they sweat, they will deglaze the pan so you don’t lose any flavor from the meat.

Italy’s Sofrito

Our friends who live in the big Mediterranean boot also use a sofrito but theirs is a little different. It is the same ratio as the holy trinity and mirepoix (2:1:1) but instead of carrots or bell peppers, the Italians use fennel. Most halfway decent grocers carry fennel bulbs. If you can’t find them in your favorite big-box grocer, try Whole Foods or Trader Joes or ANY REALLY SMALL LOCAL CULTURALLY SPECIFIC grocer.

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Italian Sofrito

  • Author: Bull Garlington
  • Prep Time: 10
  • Cook Time: 10
  • Total Time: 20 minutes
  • Method: Saute
  • Cuisine: Italian

The classic Italian flavor base is just a Mirepoix with the carrots swapped for diced fennel and a lot of olive oil. Use it as a base for Italian sausage and roasted potatoes and watch your family swoon.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups onion, diced
  • 1 cup of celery, diced
  • 1 cup of diced fennel, diced
  • About a cup of olive oil

Instructions

  1. Heat the oil in a pan, add the ingredients
  2. Cook until fragrant and soft–do not brown!
  3. Use as a base for a dish or freeze it for later

Notes

If you feel like the fennel is too strong, or you just like a more savory flavor, use half a cup of diced carrots and half a cup of diced fennel.

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BULL Garlington

Bull Garlington

Bull Garlington is an award-winning author, columnist and public speaker. His books include “The Full English,” “Death by Children.” He writes about Wine for Chicago's Local Traveler and the "Analog Attorney" column for Attorney at Work. He prefers South American literature, classic jazz, Partagas 1945s, a decent Laphroaig, and makes a mean chicken and andouille gumbo. His company, Creative Writer PRO, offers top-shelf content for small and medium-size businesses. Follow him @bull_garlington.

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