It has often been said that as diverse as cuisines are, they share some really basic things. Grilled marinated meat is found everywhere. So is bread.
And then there’s the stew. Every cuisine has a version of stew which may or may not include meat or seafood. Admittedly, a Spanish stew will not necessarily taste the same as a Scandinavian stew. Every stew differs in the mix of meat or seafood, if present, the combination of vegetables and the base sauce. And that brings me to mirepoix and sofrito.
The vegetable and aromatic base
In France, many dishes, including stews, start with a base called mirepoix (pronounced meer-pwah) — equal amounts of chopped onion, carrot and celery cooked gently in oil or butter until soft. In Spain, there is sofrito which has many variants but the most common being garlic, onion, peppers (pimientos) and tomatoes sauteed in olive oil. There is the Italian soffritto which often includes garlic, shallots, leeks and a myriad of fresh herbs. And there is the Cajun and Creole Holy Trinity which has equal amounts of onions, bell peppers and celery.
Every culinary culture has its version of this basic of basics. In the Philippines, we call it ginisa.
So, despite the exotic and sometimes unpronounceable words, it boils down to ginisa. It’s the base for many wonderful things.
It goes without saying that if you intend to cook a French-style stew, you can’t start with a Filipino ginisa mix. You start with mirepoix.
Just chop equal amounts of onion, carrot and celery, heat some butter (a combination of butter and oil is quite okay) and you cook the vegetables gently with a little seasoning (salt and pepper are the most basic) until they are softened and aromatic.
In many dishes, the mirepoix is prepared in the pan where meat has been browned (see “Do we really need to brown meat before braising or stewing?“). The vegetables are thrown into the pan and cooked in the oil where the meat has been browned. The vegetables get mixed with the browned bits that stick on the bottom of the pan and absorb the flavors. Then, liquid is poured in, usually wine or broth (water is a bad idea), to deglaze, loosening everything that sticks to the pan so that it becomes a part of the base of the sauce.
Mastering the basics
Learning how to cook, and learning a new cuisine especially, is not about recipes. It is about understanding and mastering the basics. While it may be convenient to pick up a packet of seasoning mix from the grocery shelf, real cooking requires a little more curiosity, interest and involvement.