Gala Placidia Image
06/06/2009 - 05:37

 The base for many Italian sauces and dishes is the "soffritto" (sofrit in French, sofrito in Spanish), a mixture of some diced vegetables which are cooked in a heavy pan with three tablespoons of olive oil (although some other kinds of oil and fat are also been used) until they reach a consistency which is defined as "under (sub) fried". This means that we should not overcook those vegetables or caramelise them, unless it is a specific recipe which calls for that.The basic recipe requires the following ingredients:3 tablespoons olive oil1 onion, small dice1 clove garlic, flattened and choppedsalt and pepper to tasteThe onion is sauteed in the oil for about 12 minutes until it becomes transparent.During the last 2 minutes, you add the garlic and keep on cooking it.In Northern Italy, 2 sticks of celery and 2 carrots, all diced, are added to the onion.Many other vegetables, all diced, such as zucchini, mushrooms, augergines, etc. can also be added.I always add 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar (aceto balsamico) to add extra flavour.Then your base is ready and you may add cooked meat, chicken or even seafood.To turn this into a ragu, you add1 large tin of tomato puree (or a tin of tomatoes, chopped)2 tablespoons of tomato pasteherbs to taste(If you are not using the balsamic vinegar, add 1/2 teaspoon of sugar)and cook thoroughly for a few more minutes.You can also add chopped olives, capers, anchovies..... there are many variations.This can be a sauce for pasta, polenta and also for many stews.Which is your favourite sauce which starts with a "soffritto"?    


This is really the base for all the English cooking I do too.    For sheperd's/cottage pie and casseroles I slice the onions and chop the carrots/celery plus anything else around into more chunky pieces. For a bolognese sauce I chop the veg very finely in a Magimix before frying so it is more of a sauce.  But basically it all starts the same - heat the oil, slowly fry the onion, add the garlic and carrot, then celery and other veg if available, then brown the meat and add whatever else is going into the sauce/casserole - tinned tomatoes, tomato puree, wine, stock, etc.  Even if I start following a receipe I usually find I am missing some ingredient and then add whatever is to hand.A good hearty beef casserole cannot be beaten on a cold evening.  I have cooked my best ones in Italy - probably better because I am not so mean with the red wine!  I also think that Italian meat is much better in quality than that available in the UK (although more expensive).I'm probably thinking about this as England has turned so wet and cold today - temperature down about 10 degrees from a few days ago!

 As you said, Flyingpigs, it is the basic preparation which starts a great deal of dishes, not only in Italy, but also in othe countries as well. Its origin is not very well known, but it is interesting that the word used in Italy, Spain and France is basically the same and it means under or sub fried. What is most important is to have a heavy pan to cook it.The ingredients, except for the basic ones can be varied according to the seasons and to whatever you have at home. Balsamic vinegar, red or white wine can also be added and reduced and they give an extra touch. Same thing with herbs; if you are turning it into a tomato sauce, basil is great.Fresh herbs are always better; however, there is in Italy a dried mixture that can be purchased, called "Erbe Toscane" which is excellent. The addition of dried tomatoes, chopped, also gives extra flavour.And there is a great product that I discover quite by chance at Lidl during their Italian Week. The brand is "Cusina" and they are made in Italy. There are several flavours and I particularly like the "Preparato al pomodoro per salsa per bruschette" and the "Preparato per salsa per spaghetti alla diavola". I don't use them to make sauces, but I add a couple of tablespoons of them to my sauces to enhance flavours. They are made of 100% natural ingredients and they  are specially made for Lidl, so you can't find them anywhere else.I also agree, Italian meat is very good. Veal is delicious.

The French "roux" may not be, after all, as French as we have been lead to believe. It is a basic thickener and binder made from fat (generally butter, but other fats have been used as it is the case in Créole cuisine) and flour. It is also the base of numerous sauces and the thickener of stews and roasts. All this culinary terminology in French comes mainly from the works of Antonin Carême, the first "celebrity" chef, back in the 19th Century who wrote several books on cooking and techniques. Carême was referred to as "The Cook of Kings and the King of Cooks"; however, he recognised that the French cuisine suffered a big "revolution" when Catherine de Medici married Henry II of France, and, horrified by the French cooking of the time, which was totally medieval and unrefined ( read rotten meat and spices to cover up) brought her own Tuscan chefs to the French court. Catherine loved her food and there were already some interesting books written by Italian experts, such as the "Liber de Arte Coquinaria" by Bartolomeo Sacchi and Platina's "De honesta voluptate et valetudine" This first book had been translated into French and Carême himself recognised in his works that the French Cuisine had an enormous debt to those Italian writers and chefs.This is an area of culinary knowledge that fascinates me and I have done quite a lot of research on the matter as I used to lecture on "French Culinary Terminology"..... although, after what I have just said we could call it "Italo-French Culinary Terminology". If you like the subject, we can further discuss it.

 I really like soffritto. My mother and I prefer to make soffritto for a tasty ragù. We avoid to use it in other recipes - even though many families do the contrary.I think that raw olive oil is less tasty but more healthy  

I rescued this recipe I gave in the old forum as an example of how different "soffrittos" and "ragùs" can give us a variety of tastes and flavours.I told you at the time that during our last trip to Italy I bought in Barga (LU), at a small shop that sells local products on the main street coming straight from the gate at the parking, a couple of packets of chestnut tagliatelle. I served them with a duck and orange ragù; which I concocted myself; inspired in a traditional Tuscan dish which apparently is the original source for the French "Canard à l'orange". The Tuscans say that this dish was taken to France by the chefs who accompanied Catherine of Medici and this makes a link with what I said before regarding the Italian influence in French classical cooking.I have organised the recipe a bit better now, so here is the revamped version1.- The day before I cooked 1 1/2 ducks in a Slow Cooker (Crockpot) leaving them whole and only adding salt and pepper, 1/2 cup of white wine, 1 teaspoon Tuscan Herbs Mixture, the juice of 1 orange and a few slices of another orange. I did this for 8 hours and I left the pieces to cool down in the crockpot. If you do not own a slow cooker, you can do the same with a heavy saucepan using a simmering temperature. Allow to cool in the pot.2.- Next day, I sauteed in a bit of olive oil the following:1 onion finely chopped2 stalks celery finely chopped2 carrots finely choppedOnce cooked until they become transparent, I added about two tablespoons of grated orange peel, 1 little container of glazed orange and lemon peels, 1/2 cup white wine, a small glass of "grappa", 1/2 cup orange juice and allowed all liquids to reduce and evaporate  I added then the duck meat, without skins, chopped and allowed the whole pot to cook for a few more minutes to blend flavours.I served it with the chestnut tagliatelli and a bit of freshly grated Parmesan cheese on the side, for those who cannot eat pasta without cheese. (I prefer this dish without the cheese.....)It is a delicious combination where the traditional tomato sauce is absent and a more delicate one, perfect to accompany chestnut based pasta.Enjoy! 

Lots of lovely ideas here but I would take issue with the idea that meat is better in Italy than in the UK! Don't get me wrong, I'm a carnivore through and through. But I would choose organic meat wherever possible, and from what I understand, meat production in Italy is mainly based on heavily intensive methods. My parents live and France and they are having similar difficulties buying organic meat. They have to drive a long way to get it. Their local farmer's lambs never set foot outside before they are slaughtered, whereas you're pretty safe with even officially non-organic lamb in the UK as sheep are always outside. I have struggled to find organic meat, even in the vast supermarket an hour from our house in Emilia Romagna, whereas in pretty much any English supermarket there will be an organic section, however small.As for veal, I would never touch white veal in Italy, only British rose veal, which is grass-fed and meets high welfare standards (I don't eat it generally anyway, but if I did I would most definitely want to know its provenance). Italian veal is produced in conditions that would be illegal in the UK.'m afraid other European countries don't care about animal welfare anywhere near much as we Brits do.

 Sorry Fox, but I have to slightly disagree. It all depends on where you buy your meat, whether it is beef, veal, or other varieties. You always have to look at the labels or ask a butcher that you can trust.Although the labelling of "organic" food is not as prominent as in the UK, there is plenty of cattle that has been "organically" bred and raised throughout centuries, even from the time of the Etruscans. In Tuscany we have the "Val di Chiana" (there is a previous thread on this matter) and the Maremma for beef and veal. We also have fabulous pork from the Chianti region, called il "Tonno del Chianti" and in every region, particularly your own region of Emilia Romagna which is a gourmet's paradise, you can find excellent animal products. Lamb from Basilicata is fabulous and bred according to traditional organic methods.As for the French situation, I live most of the year at the border between France and Spain and I do quite a bit of shopping there as well. Again, lamb from the Pyrenees is superb and bred according to traditional methods. Granted that perhaps the labelling as "organic products" is not as prominent as in the UK or the USA; however, I have spoken with a person who owns an organic food shop in London, who has told me that the most difficult thing for them is to find authentic organic products as there is a lot of misrepresentation in that area. Which makes sense as there are too many shops selling those products and we all know that this type of productions is still very limited.Summing up, and as you say, it is a matter of checking the provenance and knowing what you are after.  

Of course I agree that great meat can be found if you know where to look - however, the fact remains that the UK usually has higher animal welfare standards than the rest of Europe, even for intensively reared animals. For example, pigs in the UK have far more access to outdoor space than anywhere else (I'm well aware that we've still got a long way to go, but according to these statistics we're quite a long way ahead of other countries If it's had a happy life (which the vast majority of Italian veal certainly hasn't), it tastes much better! I'm sticking to my rule that my pork needs to have been outdoor-reared and slaughtered in the UK unless I know exactly where and how it was 'grown'!

rather than buy from supermarkets Fox, we buy our meat from our village lady butcher, who obtains her meat locally and from organic farmers, all this clearly displayed in large posters around her shop.It isnt cheap, so a smaller amount goes a long way . I still havent come to terms with the lamb though, it is very expensive and I dont seem to cook it very well!, even when I use my Silver Spoon recipe book, anyone got any favourite fool-proof ideas for cooking it?A 

For most lamb cuts excepting the leg I slow braise in a shallow lidded heavy casserol. I use a sliced onion , several sliced cloves of garlic, carrots and rosemary. Saute the veg then slightly brown the meat then using lamb stock ( you can use a stock cube if you do not have any lamb stock) I add enough liquid to come about half way up the meat. Cover with a tight fitting lid. Use a sheet of foil tucked over the meat and kept in place with the lid if your casserol lid is not tight fitting.Slow cook in the oven for around 3 to 4 hours at Gas Mark 2 or 120CThis works best with shoulder but because the meat is melt in the mouth soft and tends to fall away from the bone, a pair of tongs and a spoon are best for serving. We tend to serve it with roasted vedgetables as the oven is on. This is a great family favourite but is not quite up to dinner party standards

I agree, Angie and Robert, that I should find a local producer, and if ever I live there permanently I shall certainly do so. My concern is whether animals can be classified as organic but still not go outside (touching upon Gala Placidia's point that 'organic' is still a foggy area!). For example, our local restaurant has a smallholding at which they rear their own chianina beef to organic standards. It's fantastic - however, from what I can see, they are not grass fed and don't go outside.

Sorry, Fox, the animals that your restaurant may rear could belong to the Chianina breed; however, they are not reared according to the standards required by registered breeders who must belong to a cooperative which maintains those standards. These standards maintain that the animals must be grass fed and should be reared outdoors. This gives this meat a particular flavour, slightly salty, because of the nature of the pastures they feed on.In a way, the "chianina" cattle that is not reared under those conditions cannot be called by that name. A similar case to those so called "organic" products.... which are not  really "organic". A very foggy area.Angie, I will soon start a thread on lamb recipes and cuts in the "Il Buongustaio" Circle. It is an open group.

 I agree with Zocco's recipe, it is practically identical to the one I use, with the exception that I also add some lemon juice once the meat has been browned.  Sometimes I also marinate the lamb cut in the fridge for 24 hours using a mixture of 1 tablespoon of olive oilthe juice of 1 lemonrosemary, oregano, garlic slices, salt and pepperI use the marinade to baste the lamb.Also, the shoulder is tender and juicy.Nevertheless, I also agree with Zocco that the presentation is not up to dinner party standards. It is more appropriate for an informal meal.