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Dinnertime Never Had A Better Friend Than Sofrito El Caribe, New Haven
Dinnertime Never Had A Better Friend Than Sofrito
JOHN KESSLER, Staff
January 22, 2004
Chop a little onion up, chop it up
That's the first step for making my sofrito
Ohh, I add some peppers next, in the cup
Chop 'em up all nice and fine, sofrito
Never gonna stop, give it up
Garlic, carrots, thyme. Always stir it up with a touch
Of some olive oil. My my my i yi woo. M-m-m-my sofrito . . .
With apologies to the Knack and their 1979 hit "My Sharona," a homemade sofrito is a wonderful thing to have around your kitchen. It is the kind of ingredient that, by its very presence, will nudge you into making better dishes, with more resonant, complex flavors. A big batch can last a week or two in the fridge, and you will find yourself reaching for it as often as you do for the salt shaker.
This combination of finely minced vegetables and other aromatic ingredients is widely used throughout the Latin world --- from southern Europe (called "soffrito" in Italian), the Caribbean, Central America and South America. It is the mixture you fry first in hot oil and then build upon. In Italy, it is the base of sugos used to sauce pastas. In the Caribbean it is indispensable in stews and rice.
Whatever the origin, every sofrito recipe seems to begin with an onion. And then all bets are off. A typical Italian soffrito also contains equal measures of carrots, celery and pancetta. The ingredients must dance in hot olive oil in the bottom of the pot until they caramelize and sweeten, and only then are you on your way to a real bolognese sauce. In Puerto Rico, the sofrito will contain garlic, cilantro and a good quantity of a long-leaf herb, recao, that tastes like cilantro. (It is also known as "culantro" and "sawtooth," and ethnic restaurant-goers may recognize it from Vietnamese pho restaurants.) This sofrito is added by the cupful to stewing chicken. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, sofrito isn't sofrito unless it exhibits the distinctive orange color of annatto, a seed used to flavor the oil.
Some recipes contain tomatoes. Others call for salt pork or cured ham. Garlic is used with a gentle hand here, wanton abandon there.
You can find jarred sofrito in Caribbean specialty stores, as well as the excellent Brazilian counterpart called tempero, which is heady with garlic and bay leaf and sharp with vinegar.
But it is easy enough to make and customize to your taste. A sofrito made from properly diced ingredients is in every way superior to a sofrito made in a food processor. The distinct facets of the diced vegetables caramelize in the oil and create many layers of flavor. Food scientist Harold McGee, interviewed once on the subject of sofritos, estimated that "hundreds and hundreds" of flavorful compounds are produced in the process of cooking them in hot fat.
That said, ease wins out for me. I make sofrito in a big batch in the food processor so that I can always have it on hand. I keep my own recipe simple so that I can goose it, adding bacon, herbs or tomato as the recipe needs.
My last batch of sofrito helped me produce a big batch of black beans, a veal chuck roast braised with red wine and bay leaf, a pot of rice pilaf, fresh cod simmered with tomatoes and smoked paprika and fresh cranberry beans cooked Turkish style with hot pepper paste. It doesn't matter what I cook: as soon as the sofrito hits the hot oil, our house smells like dinner.
CONDIMENT: M-M-M-My Sofrito
Makes 25 servings
Preparation time: 10 minutes
2 medium yellow onions (not sweet varieties), peeled and coarsely chopped
1 green bell pepper, seeded and coarsely chopped
3 serrano peppers, halved and seeded
3 large garlic cloves, peeled
2 medium carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup olive oil
Combine onions, bell pepper, serrano peppers, garlic cloves, carrots and salt in bowl of food processor and blend. Add oil through the feed tube and continue blending until smooth. Store in an airtight container for up to two weeks in the refrigerator.
Per serving: 46 calories (percent of calories from fat, 83), trace protein, 2 grams carbohydrates, no fiber, 4 grams fat, no cholesterol, 88 milligrams sodium.
SIDE DISH: Black Beans
Makes 12 servings
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 2 1/4-3 hours
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup sofrito (recipe above)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano
3/4 cup tomato sauce
1 12-ounce bag black turtle beans, picked over and rinsed
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat oil in large, heavy pot until very hot but not smoking. Fry the sofrito, stirring often, until it is very fragrant and translucent --- about 5 minutes. Add cumin and oregano and fry an additional minute. Add the tomato sauce, beans, bay leaves and 3 quarts water. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to achieve an active simmer.
Cook for 1 1/2-2 hours, stirring occasionally to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot. When beans are reasonably tender, remove about 2 cups beans and their liquid and mash them in a mixing bowl with the back of a large spoon to make a paste. Return the paste to the beans and stir well. Season and continue simmering until the beans are very tender, about 30 minutes.
Per serving: 204 calories (percent of calories from fat, 37), 8 grams protein, 25 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams fiber, 9 grams fat, no cholesterol, 224 milligrams sodium.
El Caribe, New Haven
136 Chapel St., New Haven, (203) 562-1330
By ANA MUÑOZ
January 23, 2004
For three years, Guy Dimicco dedicated every spare moment away from his job as a plumbing supervisor to building his own Taj Mahal in the middle of Fair Haven. As a teenager his wife Carmen, originally from Puerto Rico, had dreamed of opening her own Caribbean restaurant, a homey place where patrons could sample authentic food from the homeland she left when she was 10.
When a bankrupt Venetian blind factory on Chapel Street went up for sale, Mr. Dimicco bought the property and set about gutting and rebuilding the interior so that his wife could realize her dream before they celebrated their tenth anniversary.
His resultant labor of love, El Caribe, drapes the kitschy feel of a traditional American diner in tropical flavor. Green pleather booths line the walls, each decorated with a single, glittered cloth rose. A soft carpet with a repeating palm tree motif covers the linoleum floor. Mr. Dimicco broke up the wide-open, industrial space by building a mock rain forest, replete with miniature palm trees and a goldfish pond, at its center.
As I surveyed his work, I found Guy Dimicco's loving attempt to create a Caribbean setting out of American ingredients charming. I had dragged my two closest loved ones in New Haven, Hilary and my boyfriend Josh, along with me to El Caribe because I thought we all needed a vacation from bland campus food and conversation. Though we felt divided over the merits of El Caribe's cross-cultural design, we all agreed that chef Hector Jimenez's cuisine tasted like we could be sitting on a tropical beach, instead of hiding away from the slushy streets outside our window.
At first, the restaurant's menu presented my vegetarian companions with a challenge. Because Carmen Dimicco and Jimenez wanted to keep their offerings traditional, their paellas, mofongo and plantanos rellenos featured seafood or pork; no dishes had been adjusted to serve, as Josh jokingly put it, "bougie vegetarian gringos." Josh and Hilary solved the crisis by creating their own vegetarian sampler out of side dishes, including plantanos verdes ($2.50), plantanos maduros ($2.50), yuca ($3), and frijoles con arroz ($3). Blessed with cruder morals and purposeful ignorance of the American meat and fishing industries, I dug into Jimenez's signature dish, a mofongo con mariscos ($18.95).
Though Carmen Dimicco wanted to maintain a "casual, familial feeling" for her restaurant, my food was still beautifully presented in gourmet style, with carefully arranged fresh vegetables surrounding a ceramic bowl of steaming seafood. Mofongo is prepared by hand mashing green plantains, coating them in a garlic and parsley sauce, and then deep frying the mixture. The mofongo acts as a firm, pancake foundation for juicy stuffings. I chose to layer mine with a mélange of fresh shrimp, squid and lobster dressed in a mild tomato and pepper sauce. Jimenez, who served as a head chef in more than 10 Puerto Rican resorts and upscale restaurants before moving to New Haven a year ago, cooked the seafood expertly, just enough so that its soft tender insides still melted into the mofongo's starchier base.
The vegetarians' makeshift meal proved a surprising success. The yuca and plantanos verdes arrived with their own sauces, a garlic butter tincture for the former, and a mayonnaise ketchup concoction for the latter. Hilary marveled at the freshness of the plantains and declared the sauces perfect accents for their mild, soft flavor. Josh commented on the yuca's unique texture, pronouncing, "the contrast between the crispy outer layer and the meaty is a pleasure to sink your teeth into."
Our only complaint was that the portions were too big to handle. At the end of our meal, Guy Dimicco stopped by our table to nag us about the food left on our plates. "You kids don't know how to eat," he laughed. "Well, make sure you hang out by the pond before you leave." On our way out we did, and by the end of our meal, even Hilary felt like she was miles away from the New Haven winter.