"First, make a sofregit..." Thus begin literally hundreds of Catalan recipes; it's the "Once upon a time" of Catalan cuisine, the ritual opening, the jumping-off point. Sofregit is present in almost every sauced and stewed dish the idiom admits, at least traditionally, and helps define the idiom itself. The Castilian sofrito and the Italian soffritto (or battuto) are related, certainly; but sofregit is simpler than its cousins, more fundamental—and more widely used by far. If you're going to cook Catalan, you must learn how to make a good sofregit, period. Luckily, there's nothing to it. As noted earlier in the book, it's simply onions and (usually) tomatoes, sometimes with herbs and/or other vegetables added, cooked down into a sort of mush (or confiture, to be a bit more elegant about it). It's the first thing into the pot, laying the foundation for what's to come. Everything else is built upon it and draws flavor from it. It's a real fond de cuisine.
Sofregit is mentioned in the Libre de Sent Sovi (c. 1324), and thus has obviously been a part of Catalan cuisine since medieval times. 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. Onions remain its most important element, and it is perfectly possible to make a sofregit from them (and oil) alone. Mild, sweet onions are best for sofregit, and Maui, Vidalia, or Walla-Walla onions are best of all (though considering their price, these are undeniably an extravagance, and aren't really necessary).
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.
Author Nestor Lujan grows almost rhapsodic over the onion question, writing that they should ideally reach "the strange and mysterious color that, in the School of Venice, the brushstrokes of the great master Titian obtain." Good luck. Me, I'm happy if I can get them to a Turneresque pale golden-brown. To do this, I let them simmer in plenty of olive oil on the lowest flame my stove will hold and in the biggest pan I have, stirring them occasionally and pouring off the excess oil when they are done—saving it, of course, for other cooking (for instance, frying bread for a picada; see page 40 of the book). I often use a sofregit, incidentally, as the starting point for soups and stocks that aren't Catalan at all.
Whenever a sofregit is called for in the recipes that follow (which is often), specific quantities and ingredients are mentioned. Here, though, is a basic recipe and the basic technique.
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.)
by Colman Andrews
The Harvard Common Press
$17.95 U.S.; $22.95 CAN.
Recipe reprinted by permission.
This page created April 2006