Sofrito stars in the Mediterranean diet

This heart-healthy eating plan sets only a few restrictions and is easy to follow

Sofrito (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Eat sofrito at least twice a week” is one of the guidelines that were given to participants in the latest study of the Mediterranean diet. The scholars defined sofrito as “a sauce made with tomato and onion, often including garlic and aromatic herbs, and slowly simmered with olive oil.”
The results of the study, which were recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine, are causing great excitement among food lovers. This hearthealthy eating plan sets only a few restrictions and is therefore very easy to follow.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, wrote to us that she uses sofrito “very, very often as a starting process for other dishes – sauces, soups, stews,” and recommends it as a way to get more vegetables into our diets.
“We don’t often think of a small amount of onion, garlic, tomato, carrot, etc., as part of our vegetable quota, but it all adds up in the end.” To make a pasta sauce, Jenkins adds basil to the cooked tomatoonion- garlic mixture. For a tomato and bean soup, she purees the mixture and adds freshly cooked dried beans.
The researchers found that a Mediterranean diet enriched with a generous dose of either olive oil or nuts is much better for cardiovascular health than a low-fat diet.
The groups of participants who were on the Mediterranean diet were told to use either four tablespoons of olive oil a day or 30 grams (about 1 ounce) of nuts – walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts, and to have five daily servings of vegetables and fruits and three weekly servings of legumes and fish.
Red and processed meats were to be avoided, as well as sodas, fats for spreading, such as margarine, and commercial pastries and sweets. Otherwise, ingredients were not limited and neither were calories.
The fact that a specific sauce was an integral part of the diet caught our attention.
The participants did not receive an actual sofrito recipe. They didn’t need one, since the study took place in Spain, where sofrito is central to the cuisine. In The Food of Spain, Claudia Roden writes “Spain’s signature tune is the sofrito, of fried onion and tomato, to which garlic and green peppers are often added.”
Roden finds a Jewish influence on sofrito. Frying with olive oil was so strongly associated with Jewish cooking that during the period of the Inquisition, Christians avoided doing so for fear of being mistaken for secret Jews. “Jews were said to smell of onion and garlic and their homes to smell of frying onion and garlic,” writes Roden. “This duo became the basis of the ubiquitous Spanish sofrito, to which tomatoes from the New World were later added.”
Sofrito is the first recipe in Janet Mendel’s book, My Kitchen In Spain.
Mendel uses sofrito in two ways. For a basic preparation to be cooked with other foods, she sautes chopped onion and garlic in olive oil in a skillet until the onion begins to brown, adds peeled, seeded diced tomatoes and fries the mixture briefly over high heat. Next she adds salt and white wine, sherry and the juice from the tomatoes or water and cooks the sofrito until it thickens. To turn the sofrito into a smooth sauce for serving as an accompaniment, she purees it in a blender, returns it to the skillet and cooks it until it becomes very thick.
For sofrito the tomatoes should be fresh, ripe, fragrant and soft, writes Jeff Koehler, author of La Paella, and can be either peeled, seeded and chopped or halved and grated on a box grater. The sofrito should be cooked to a pasty, almost sweet base; the tomatoes’ color should have darkened, their moisture should have evaporated and their taste should have lost its acidity.
In Spain, sofrito is a popular flavoring for fish dishes. Mendel makes a Basque tuna and potato stew by sauteing green peppers and pimenton (Spanish paprika) with the other sofrito components and flavors it with salt, freshly ground black pepper and crushed red pepper flakes. She cooks diced potato with white wine, water and the sofrito and adds fresh tuna when the potato is tender.
For a more unusual combination, Mendel prepares tomato and seafood soup with figs. She simmers the fish with fish broth and sofrito seasoned with cumin and red pepper flakes. In summertime, fresh sliced figs or peeled prickly pears (sabras) are added to this village soup, which is served topped with toasted baguette slices and mint sprigs.
Roden’s Catalan fish soup with potatoes begins with a sofrito and is flavored with saffron and white wine. She finishes it with a typical Catalan preparation – a picada, or almond or hazelnut paste flavored with garlic and parsley. (See recipe below.) Sofrito is indispensable in Spanish rice dishes. Koehler calls it “the foundation of nearly every rice dish in Spain.” Mendel’s meatless country dish of rice with “partridge” is made with a whole unpeeled head of garlic. She cooks chickpeas with the garlic head and Spanish paprika and in another pan prepares a sofrito, adding zucchini and potatoes with the tomatoes. To finish, she combines short-grain rice with the sofrito, the garlic head, the cooked chickpeas and their liquid and bakes the mixture. At serving time people squeeze garlic from the cloves onto their rice.
Health-conscious cooks have been debating which component of the Mediterranean diet is the key to its success: Is it the olive oil? The nuts? The fish? Experts have commented that it’s the diet as a whole that is important, and not a single element.
The findings have been hailed as an important contribution to nutritional knowledge because of the number of participants – over 7,000, and the length of time – over five years. In fact, the study was ended early so that the people in the control group, who were on the low-fat diet, could benefit from the results of the Mediterranean diet. ■
Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.
This recipe is from Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook. As a sauce, sofrito is a tasty accompaniment for fish, meat and vegetables like cooked potatoes and beans or pasta and rice. When fresh tomatoes are not available, you can make the sauce with one or two 800-gr. (28-ounce) cans of tomatoes, drained and chopped.
Makes 2 to 21⁄2 cups
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil 2 medium onions, finely chopped 1 small sweet green or red bell pepper, finely chopped (optional) 2 large garlic cloves, chopped 900 gr. (2 pounds) ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped salt and freshly ground pepper 2 to 3 Tbsp. chopped parsley (optional)
Heat oil in a large skillet. Add onions and sweet pepper and cook, stirring often, 10 minutes. Add garlic and saute 3 minutes or until onions are soft but not brown. Add tomatoes, salt and pepper and cook gently uncovered about 10 to 15 minutes or until mixture is thick. Taste and adjust seasoning. Stir in parsley.
This is a kosher adaptation of the recipe for Pepa’s fish soup in The Food of Spain. Author Claudia Roden writes: “This is an everyday Catalan fish soup that is more like a stew... Like so many Catalan dishes, it starts with a sofrito (called sofregit in Catalonia) of fried garlic and tomato and ends with a picada (sauce) of almonds, garlic and parsley. Use any firm white fish, such as cod, haddock or hake.”
Makes 4 servings
3 Tbsp. olive oil 4 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced 1 large or 2 small tomatoes, peeled and chopped 450 gr. (1 pound) waxy potatoes, peeled and cut into slices 1 cm. (1⁄3 inch) thick1⁄2 cup dry white wine 11⁄2 cups fish stock or chicken stock salt to taste
a good pinch of saffron threads 3⁄4 tsp. sugar 450 gr. (1 pound) firm white fish fillet, cut into 2.5-cm. (1-inch) chunks
Picada: 10 blanched almonds 1 large clove of garlic, peeled 11⁄2 tsp olive oil 1 Tbsp. chopped parsley
Heat oil in a wide casserole or pan, add chopped garlic and tomatoes and cook over medium heat, stirring often, for about 10 minutes, until the tomato is reduced to a jam-like sauce. Add potatoes, wine and enough stock to cover the potatoes. Add salt, saffron and sugar and simmer, covered, over low heat for about 20 minutes or until potatoes are just tender.
Meanwhile, for the picada: Fry almonds and garlic clove in 11⁄2 tsp. oil in a small skillet until both are lightly brown; drain on paper towels. Crush and grind them to a paste in a mortar with the parsley; or use a food processor, adding a ladleful of the stock.
Put the fish in the soup and cook 3 minutes. Add the picada. Cook over low heat until fish is opaque throughout, about 7 minutes.
Serve hot.