Every food culture has its own combination of vegetables cooked in a fat or oil until their flavours meld. These combinations become the foundation of a dish, on which it can build all its other flavours.
In Louisiana Creole it’s ‘the holy trinity’ of onions, green capsicums (bell peppers) and celery. Italy has their soffritto of garlic, leeks, fresh herbs, celery and onions, sauteed in olive oil. Spain uses onions, garlic and tomato. Thai curries use pounded pastes of red shallot, chilli, onion and ginger. Sichuanese dishes use a of stir fry garlic, ginger, chilli and fermented soy beans.
In India the order of addition is reversed with their tarkas, which are sautes of onions and spices cooked in ghee and stirred into dals at the last minute.
All of these ingredients are the ‘aromatics’ of a dish. They add the sweet, savoury, earthy notes that work their way through a pot of food, snatching up flavours, deepening, complimenting and bolstering as they drift.
There’s not a culture I know which doesn’t have their own set of dependable aromatics. If you know of one, please tell me.
None of the combinations are fixed. Sometimes a soffritto uses carrots as well as celery, or a thai paste onions instead of shallots. But knowing the general patterns helps cooks understand why particularly foods taste ‘Spanish’ rather than ‘Italian’. Or at least, one of the reasons. And once we know this, we can play around with the combinations, making them more anise (add fennel), grassy (more celery), herbaceous (try parsley), or sweet (more carrot), to suit our final flavour intentions.
Out of all these cooked aromatic combinations, the most well known is probably France’s ‘mirepoix’, which is finely diced onion, celery and carrot at a ratio of 2:1:1, slowly sweated down to a transparent, soft mess in butter or animal fats.
Mirepoix is a great place to start if you’re trying to wing it with a soup or pasta sauce. From here you can add various herbs or vegetables to suit a particular flavour drift.
- 2 parts finely diced onion
- 1 part finely diced carrot
- 1 part finely diced celery
- 2-5 tbsp of very good olive oil, butter, bacon fat, chicken fat or other lard (enough to thinly coat the vegetables)
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a saucepan or frying pan with a lid, heat a couple of tablespoons of oil or fat on a medium heat until it spreads easily across the base of the pan, starts to dance (or ripple) just a little (in the case of fat or oil), or to foam (in the case of butter).
Pour in the vegetables and stir them with a wooden spoon to coat. If some of the vegetables still look a little dry, or uncoated by the fat, melt a little more into the pan and stir again. Add just enough for the vegetables to be coated, seasoning lightly with salt and a couple of grinds of black pepper, put a lid on the pan and let the vegetables heat up for a minute or two over a medium flame.
Once the vegetables have been cooking for a minute or two, take the lid off, give them a really good stir, and check how they’re cooking. There should be a very soft simmering noise, nothing too ‘raspy’ (which would indicate that the vegetables are grabbing and caramelizing on the pan rather than slowly sweating). Turn the flame down, if necessary, and replace the lid.
Keep cooking the vegetables like this, stirring, checking how fast they’re cooking, replacing the lid, until the carrots and celery are very soft and the onions are transparent. At this stage, you’ve completed the traditional mirepoix and you can start to add other ingredients.
Depending on what flavours you’re looking for in your final dish, you could continue cooking this mirepoix with the lid off, allowing it to brown a little. This would deepen and sweeten the flavours of the the dish.