Cultural Fundamentals: El Sofregit
“First you make a roux” was a popular phrase uttered among folks in my native Louisiana, echoing the words of Cajun chef Justin Wilson on how you must start a gumbo. Without a roux, there was nothing, and with a good roux you could have great gumbo with even the most basic ingredients. On the other hand, make a bad roux – don’t brown it enough, or even worse, burn it – and your gumbo is doomed.
I’m not waxing nostalgic about Louisiana, so what does this have to do with Catalan cuisine? Well, while Catalans aren’t known for their rouxs, they do make sofregit, and the need to make a good one can make or break a dish.
Like a roux, the sofregit (akin to sofrito in Spanish, though not to confused with sofritos in Latin American cooking – similar but not the same) is the base of a number of the most emblematic dishes in Catalan cooking: suquet de peix, fideuá, fricandó, among countless others. In fact, many an ancient Catalan recipe begins the same as the Cajun ones do “Fem un sofregit” (“We make a sofregit”).
What is a sofregit?
Akin to Castillian sofrito and brother of the Italian batutto, sofregit is a pillar of Catalan cuisine, literally holding up the dishes in which it is used.
A simple glance at the ingredients of basic sofregit might have you thinking “what’s the big deal?” Tomatoes, onions, olive oil. What’s all the fuss about? Throw it all in a pan and fry it up! Um, no. It’s simple, but not that simple. The best sofregits take time, patience and loving supervision. As Colman Andrews, author of the renowned cookbook Catalan Cuisine tells us, the process cannot be rushed and the resilient will be rewarded:
The word sofregit itself derives from the Catalan verb sofregir, meaning to “underfry” or fry lightly. Sofregit is lightly fried, though, only in the sense that it is fried slowly, gently, on a “light” flame. In fact, this process properly continues for a long time. (Chef Josep Lladonosa: “The authentic Catalan sofregit requires a technique of patience and calm.”) A usable sofregit may be made in 15 or 20 minutes, but a really good one takes much longer. At the excellent home-style Cypsele restaurant in Palafrugell, for instance, the onions are cooked for at least an hour—”until they’re black but not burned.” At Big Rock in nearby Platja d’Aro, the onions soften and darken exquisitely in big pots on the back of a warm griddle for as long as two days.
This process is the same regardless of the ingredients of your sofregit, whether you have 2 ingredients or five.
Before cooking, how the ingredients are prepared is sometimes a source of debate. I personally grate the onions and tomatoes on a box grater, and never chop. Many share this method, while other chop the onions and grate the tomatoes. My method makes a smoother sofregit. Still there are others who want an even creamier version, so they grate, cook then purée the whole thing. Not very traditional, but if you hate texture, that will get rid of it for you.
Always use a heavy-bottomed pan to ensure that the ingredients don’t burn.
The raison d’etre of a sofregit is pretty straightforward: it gives these dishes their base and therefore their character. What would paella be without the deep tomato and onion flavor that lies underneath the other flavors? It would be fish broth flavored rice. Sofregit makes dishes like paella and fideuá what they are by providing a flavor complexity that blends so well with its fellow ingredients that might not be noticed up front but without which the dish would be nothing.
While sofregit is more famous for being the foundation of iconic Catalan dishes, it is also found in Catalan cooking as a stronger note, accompanying ingredients in a more prominent role (as in the case of Musclos a la marinera oberts al vapor en sofregit (Steamed mussels a la marinera in sofregit) Sèpia amb pèsols en sofregit (Cuttlefish with peas in sofregit).
The first mention of sofregit was in the year 1324 in the in the Sent Sovi cookbook, but it might be even older. Colman Andrews puts the ingredients in historical context:
At first, of course, it never contained tomatoes, since that fruit reached Spain from the Americas only in the sixteenth century. Instead, it was usually made of onions and leeks, with bacon or salt pork sometimes added.
Back then, sofregit was referred to as soengua in Medieval Catalan.
As mentioned before, a basic sofregit can be tomatoes and onions slowly fried in abundant olive oil. For such an elemental version, you must have the very best ingredients. The tomatoes have to be painfully ripe; very red but still slightly firm. The onions are best if they are of the sweet variety. Here in Catalunya we tend to use the Figueres variety, which is comparable to Vidalias in the U.S. You can use any onion, and if you make the sofregit well, it will work, but I’ve found that my dishes have just the right touch of oniony sweetness when I use Figueres onions.
The olive oil must be good. Why is this important? Because you’ll be using a whole lot of it. As an example, take a recipe that calls for ¼ cup of olive oil for your sofregit. It sounds like a lot, but believe me, it’s necessary. If you add less, you’ll end up with dried up fried vegetables, too brown and dehydrated to flavor your dish. Because you need so much oil to achieve the desired effect, you must ensure that it’s the good stuff – you’ll be tasting it later.
Depending on what the dish calls for, some sofregits don’t contain tomatoes at all, but instead other vegetables such as carrots, red pepper or green pepper. There is also the standard sofregit made more complex with the aforementioned ingredients. Almost invariably a sofregit would have onions, and garlic is used quite a lot in the less adventurous sofregit recipes (traditional tomato and onion sofregit + garlic). The trick there is to never burn the garlic.
There are a lot of pre-made, jarred or canned sofregits to be had here in Catalunya for the impatient masses. I frown on them all. It’s just not the same.
The flavor that they provide, while not terrible, is way too deep and they tend to be overly oily. In a serious pinch (only one very compromising occasion, mind you) I have been known to add a touch of this stuff to a real sofregit because I was lacking tomatoes. While the dish turned out acceptable, it was just that.
Don’t go there. Be prudent and take the natural route. It’s not hard nor expensive, just time consuming. Hold your horses, stick with fresh ingredients and you’ll be glad you did.
Here’s Colman Andrews’ good basic recipe for you to try. Let us know how it turns out!
To Make 1 to 1-1/2 Cups
3 onions, chopped (but not minced)
6 tomatoes, seeded and grated, or peeled, seeded, and chopped
Cover the bottom of a cassola, Dutch oven, or large skillet with at least 1/2 inch of oil, heat for several minutes, then add the onions. Reduce the heat and cook uncovered until the onions are wilted, stirring occasionally. Continue cooking in this manner until the onions have turned golden-brown and are beginning to carmelize, adding and cooking off a bit of water if desired. For a darker sofregit, the process may be continued until the onions reach the desired color—but do not let them burn.
Add the tomatoes and mix well, then continue cooking until all liquid has evaporated, and the tomatoes have begun to “melt” into the onions. (At this point, add herbs if called for in specific recipe.)
Note: If a specific sofregit recipe calls for garlic or other vegetables (leeks, bell peppers, etc.), add them after the onions have wilted, adding more oil if necessary. Sofregit, with or without tomatoes, may be made in larger quantities and stored in the refrigerator, covered with a thin layer of oil, in an airtight container, for two or three weeks at least. (It will last longer with tomatoes added, due to greater acidity.)