Soffritto is the essential base to Italian soups, stews and some sauces that chefs often refer to as "the holy trinity".
The basis of soffritto is simply a combination of three key ingredients: celery, onion and carrot. Sometimes called battuto, the make-up of this holy trinity is two parts onion to one part carrot and one part celery. This simple recipe, which can vary from region to region with addition of herbs and spices, is gently sautéed in butter or olive oil to create a flavour base for other ingredients. In the northern Italian regions of Piedmont, Veneto and Lombardy, a mix of both oil and butter is often used.
Soffritto is a combination of the word sotto, meaning under, and the adjective fritto, meaning fried, creating the phrase under-fried, which sums up the process of gently cooking the vegetables perfectly for them to be underneath the additional ingredients. The vegetable mix is cooked for about 5 minutes until it softens and becomes golden in colour; at this point it is ready for the other ingredients, such as meat, stock, tomatoes etc.
This holy trinity is created by chopping the vegetables into tiny little cubes of around ½ inch (1.3 cm) or less. Purists dictate that the smaller the better for a speedier cooking time and also for use in a risotto. These purists stipulate that this can only be properly achieved with the use of a mezzaluna, a crescent shaped, two-handled blade that fits into a wooden board with a rounded depression that is rocked from side to side. However, most chefs with good blade skills find any sharp knife does the job just as efficiently.
Many small independent greengrocers and market traders, particularly those in rural areas, will offer the buyer odori, which is basically a few sticks of celery, an onion and a couple of carrots to your shopping as a thank-you for your custom: my local greengrocer does, and it would be shameful not to use these gifts. Although a laborious task, the chopping of soffritto can be quite therapeutic.
To use fresh soffritto is best, but once chopped, it also stores well in the freezer and can be cooked straight from frozen, making it ideal for busy cooks; now most Italian supermarkets sell soffritto in the freezer section and, although this pre-packed product is convenient for the cook with little time to spend chopping vegetables, many people still create their own.
If you’re going to spend an hour or so meticulously chopping vegetables, why not try adding parsley, mint or any other herbs of your choice to the mix in preparation for different future stews and sauces; but remember to label the bag before freezing.