Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Sofrito -or That Thing Rick Puts in All the Puerto Rican Stuff


If you, or anyone in your household doesn't like cilantro, turn around and walk away. Seriously, this is very cilantro-intensive and includes an herb that is like Super-Cilantro. If you understand this, you may proceed.

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Tomorrow I will be taking on the cooking duties, I kind of insisted, really, since we had a lot of chicken and a lot of rice, I thought that I would attempt to adapt my mother's arroz con pollo (literally, "chicken with rice", for those of you who took French in high school), to our brown rice technique. I'll give an overview of how we cook brown rice tomorrow.

That would be Grover's Special #5, GOP Chairman Michael Steele.

In anticipation of that, and in order to really get the Puerto Rican flavor in any criollo-style dishes I happen to make, I thought it would be a good idea to make sofrito. Now, like a lot of Hispanic culinary terms, sofrito means different things to people from different places. In Puerto Rico, it is a green-tinged, savory, slightly spicy cooking base with the consistency of a pesto or chimichurri.

Generally, you add a heaping tablespoon or two to the pot whenever you make beans, or a sauce, or meat, or a flavored rice (arroz guisado) or, well, pretty much anything with more than three ingredients.

The only way to make this stuff, by the way, is in batches. Its simply not possible to make just a little. This recipe will yield about three cups. That will easily get you through a few months - I'll talk storage later. For now, on to the recipe:

1 small yellow onion
1 medium green bell pepper
5 small sweet red or orange bell peppers*
10 cloves of garlic
1 large bunch of cilantro - approximately 30 or so stalks
1 bunch of culantro (also known as Mexican coriander, recao, ngo gai, or eryngium foetidum) - approximately 15-20 leaves
1 1/2 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 tablespoon fine-grain salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/4 fresh ground black pepper

*If (and that's a big if) you are in an area where you can find aji dulce, use 10 of those little guys instead. I can't get those in SF, so until I get my window box with a few seeds shipped from PR, I'm using sweet peppers.

Honestly, there's really only two hard parts to this recipe.

The first is actually getting your hands on the culantro - it's relatively hard to find. Your best bets are either Asian Groceries that cater to Vietnamese cooks (it's a common garnish for ph) or Hispanic Groceries in areas with folks from the Caribbean or the northern coast of South America. I found it at Manila Oriental Market on Mission Street, and I've seen it at Berkeley Bowl in Berkeley.

The second difficult bit is the prep of the herbs - well, not so much hard as really freaking tedious. First, you want to thoroughly wash and drain the cilantro and culantro. Then, with care, pick the leaves apart - you want to have as few stems as you can. Culantro basically looks like an oversized, saw-tooth grass with a tougher stem running through the middle from top to bottom. So with those, you should shred the leaves by hand, discarding as much of the stem as possible. The cilantro is the real grunt-work. That's a few hundred leaves on those stems there, and you want to pick them all off. I can't make this clear enough: NO STEMS.

Also, I hope you like the smell of cilantro, because things will be getting aromatic up in here.

Once you have that done, wash the peppers, and peel the onions and garlic. Next, to chopping. No need to dice, you just want to get all the veggies down to a size where you can fit them easily into a blender. I cut them all down into eighths, (well, the little sweet peppers got cut into fourths).

Now you're all prepped.

First, toss in about a third of your onions, and set the blender to grind. Grind for about ten seconds until you get a nice little onion slushie. Then add a third of the garlic, grind. Then a third of the peppers, and a third of the small peppers. What you want is to add a little of each at a time, and make sure that they're fully ground down before you add the next veggie. At this point, you should start getting something resembling a very fine yellow-green salsa.

Now add the olive oil, 1/4 tablespoon of salt, and 1/3 of the cilantro and culantro. Grind for about a minute until the entire mixture is nice and smooth.

Open up your blender, spoon the mix down from the sides with a spatula, and start adding ingredients again, another third, in the same order: onions, garlic, green pepper, sweet peppers, cilantro, culantro, a little at a time, grinding until each addition is smooth.

Now add the lemon juice, the remainder of the salt, cumin and pepper. Grind your remaining ingredients in turn until smooth.

When done, you should have a very bright green, pesto-like mixture. The taste should be savory and sharp, resembling a very potent chimichurri, with a slight spicy kick on the end. If it seems just a wee bit too strong to use as a dip, then it's about right.

And that's that. A tablespoon or two added to your cooking at the beginning will help give your dishes a nice little criollo bite.

A word on storage, since this recipe is going to make enough to last your a few months. When fresh, sofrito will probably last you a month or so in the fridge if well-sealed. The best approach is to put what you need in the fridge and freeze the rest, thawing as needed. I would strongly, strongly advise keeping it in an airtight container either way and for God's sake, keep some baking soda in your fridge and freezer.

I've gone on long enough. Tomorrow, arroz con pollo.


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