Layering Flavors part 1 - Soffrito

I plan to have a few sections in this blog on “Layering Flavors.”

The overarching goal will be to try and teach a bit of what I’ve learned over the years about cooking.

Not cooking as in cooking from a recipe, but from ingredients and an experienced hand.

Today we'll be discussing Soffrito.  Soffrito is a Mediterranean/Latin American cooking technique which allows one to maximize flavors from aromatic vegetables and build a deep flavor base.  Imagine the difference between really delicious tomato sauce and really boring tomato sauce.  The latter was probably not cooked correctly.  Here we'll be going over how to avoid this.

To demonstrate, we're makin' Ciuppino!

Ciupinno is a (not so authentic) Italian seafood stew.  Some folks say the name "Ciuppino" is just a fake Italianization of "Chip-in" because fisherman would just throw some of their days' catch in the stew.  Could be true.  My Italian-American family thinks the Italian word for bathroom is "baccauzu" as in back-house, same story.

The dish originated in San Francisco and typically includes Dungeness Crab.  You can add whatever seafood you like.  It must contain some flaky fish, as this adds to the chunky stewness.  I think that bivalves (mussels, clams) releasing their seawater adds a lot as well as the shells of prawns or shrimp, so for me, these are must-haves.  I also have squid in this one.


1 ea Dungeness Crab, steamed

1/2 lbs Clams, scrubbed

1/2 lbs Mussels, scrubbed

1/2 lbs Squid, cleaned and sliced

1 whole Fish (here i use Striped Bass), skinned, deboned and cubed (save the bones)

1 lbs head-on Prawns or Shrimp, cleaned (save the heads and shells)

1 ea White Onion, diced

3 ribs Celery, diced

1 rib Celery, whole

1/2 bunch Parsley, chopped (along with the celery leaves)

2 ea Bay Leaves

1 head Garlic, sliced (whole head, not clove)

1 tsp Red Pepper Flakes

4 ea Lemons

1 ea Lemon Peel

1 can good Whole Tomatoes

2 medium Leeks

1 bottle White Wine

1/3 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 loaf Crusty Bread

There are tons and tons of flavors in this recipe.  My goal is to put everything together in a way that all flavors marry, and we extract the maximum flavor from everything.

To start, put the fish bones, leek tops, 1 rib celery and bay leaf in a pot as above.  It looks funny, but trust me, all the fish flavor and body comes from those bones.  Cover with water, bring to a light boil and simmer (no more than 45 minutes, any longer and it will begin emulsifying the fish blood and fat and get cloudy and gross.  You want a delicate fish tea)

Meanwhile, heat the Olive Oil in another pot until barely smoking and add all the prawn heads and shells.  Saute over medium heat until well roasty and the oil becomes a beautiful ruby color.  Do not burn the shells.  Its important that we steep the shells in oil, as opposed to water, because their flavor is oil-based and not soluble in the water of the fish stock.  

Once the shells are done, move them to the fish stock in order to drain all the oil from them.  Drop the heat on the pan of olive oil and add the peel of 1 lemon.  Steep for 5 minutes

Remove the lemon and strain the oil for shell fragments.

(Don't worry, we'll get to the Soffrito soon.)

 Add all the garlic to the oil, keep over low heat and stir and sizzle until the garlic turns golden brown, about 10 minutes.  Add the chili flakes for about 10 seconds.  When its ready, this is what it should look like on the right ->

What's that?  Why yes!  That's correct! Both garlic and chili have primarily fat-soluble flavor, which is why they get added to the oil!  Now you're catching on.

About this time, the fish stock should be strained.  With a slotted spoon, gently remove all solids from the stock and discard.  Strain the resulting liquid through a fine-mesh sieve.  Return liquids to the pan and return the pan to medium heat and reduce.  Add all of the juice from the can of tomatoes.

Here is where it gets so interesting I'm kind of shaking a little bit!

Add all the Soffrito vegetables to the pot of oil and toasted garlic: leeks, onion, and celery.

It looks like a lot, right?  Don't worry, it'll cook down and become very flavorful.  Now you may be wondering why we've added Onions, Leeks and Celery to the oil pot instead of the stock pot, since these vegetables have primarily a water-soluble flavor.  Well, that's the magic of Soffrito.

In the above diagram, you can see row A, which shows what happens when you add vegetables to stock and try to reduce.  The flavor comes out and by the time you actually begin to break down and concentrate the vegetables, the liquid is so concentrated and reduced that it burns on the bottom.  Not tasty.  This is probably how someone you know makes tomato sauce.  I'm sorry.

In row B, the vegetables are slowly broken down in a mostly oil bath, which keeps their flavors inside.  They slowly release water and shrink down inside the oil.  When liquid is finally added, the flavor inside the vegetables ruptures forth and the resultant stew is much more tasty and intense.  This is how tomato sauce should be.  If you don't do it like this, it won't stick to your pasta.  Gross, right?  This is also the proper technique for Paella, Arroz con Pollo, Eggplant Caponata, variations of Ratatouille, etc. 

And look how far they cook down!! Awesome.

At this point add the canned tomatoes, after giving them a rough chop.  Cook them until the color becomes more monochrome and you can once again see the oil underneath the Soffrito.  Like this:

About this time, your tomato/fish reduction probably looks like this:

Thats perfect.  Dump the Soffrito together with that reduction and turn the heat off.

Now we need to get all those bits that the Soffrito left behind in the fat soluble pot.  Pour the bottle of white wine into the (now empty) Soffrito-bits-pot.

Simmer until reduced to 1 cup.

Add the wine to the Soffrito and reduction pot and season to taste with Lemon Juice and salt.  Add an aggressive amount of salt, as the seafood we'll be adding will dilute things a bit.

 It tastes really eff-ing good, doesn't it?  I love this stuff.  The prawn oil...mmmmm, that's what gets you going.

Now we add seafood.  Start with the fish, you want it to end up flaking apart by the time we're done.

Add the clams and bring to a full boil over high heat with the lid on. Then add the mussels and close the lid again.

When everyone's opened up (about 2 minutes) add the chopped parsley and celery leaves.  Lower the heat to a medium simmer and add the shrimp, squid and everyone else we forgot. 

On the right you can see the flakes of fish as the shrimp just starts to cook through.  Keep the heat at medium and gently stir until the shrimp turns pink.

As if you could wait any longer, you needn't try.  Grab a warm loaf of crusty bread and go to town.  Don't forget lots of napkins and a bowl for extra shells.  Dining partner optional, but usually grateful.

If you wonder if I look like an idiot in the kitchen with a camera in one hand and a spoon in the other, the answer is yes.  Its totally worth it to be able to share my love of food.  Seeing it all laid out like this is totally sick.

PS, apologies for the "diagram"

Ryan Shelton