The “holy trinity.” The what?!! I realize that some food aficionados adore food enough to make it a religion, but isn’t this a bit extreme? Maybe not. It turns out that the holy trinity refers to the combinations of aromatic ingredients that make up the flavor base for many dishes in each cuisine. French cuisine has the mirepoix, a combination of onions, carrots and celery. Chinese dishes often start with scallions, ginger and garlic. And down in Louisiana, you cannot call it Cajun/Creole without onions, celery and bell peppers. This time I was exploring the Latin sofrito made of garlic, onion, bell peppers and cilantro (does this make it a ”holy quartet?”).
Who better to learn from than Chef Eileen Barett at Amanesca? Chef Eileen teaches the Sabores Latinos (Latin Flavors) cooking class in partnership with Random Events NY. Cecilia, from Random Events, immediately made me feel welcome with a friendly smile and vivid stories about her love of cooking. It turns out that she is also quite the foodie, and makes sure that their event calendar has its fair share of food related events such as their upcoming Dark Dining Project.
Sofrito takes mere minutes to make. Just throw in chunks of peeled garlic, onions, green and red bell peppers into a food processor. Add in a handful of cilantro, pour in canola or vegetable oil (any oil with a very light flavor will do) and pulse. I wanted to use up my extra cilantro so I made a large batch and froze half of it in ice cube trays. I am particularly fond of the Tovolo King Cube Silicone trays, which I also use to freeze pesto and other extra herbs. This way, you can defrost one to two tablespoons worth at a time.
Chef Eileen was a wealth of knowledge and taught us how to make Pollo Guisado (Stewed Chicken), Arroz con Habichuelas (Rice and Beans), Beef Empanadas and Tre Leches Cake. I scarfed all of them down with gusto at the end of class, but the Pollo Guisado holds a special place in my stomach.
The recipe instructs you to give the chicken time to marinate in the seasonings before cooking, an important step in building the flavors of the dish. Typically a marinade contains liquid, but even a dry marinade will infuse the meat with flavor. This also gives the meat time to come to room temperature, which helps you cook the meat evenly. If the center of the meat is still cold, the exterior will dry out by the time the center is cooked through.
Chef Eileen also made it a point to crush the dried oregano first by rubbing it between her fingers. Crushing dry herbs releases some of their oils. Try it at home. Smell a dry herb right out of its bottle and compare that to the stronger aroma it has after you crush it.
Every step has a purpose—to build complex flavor in the final dish. One of the best tips Chef Eileen shared with us was a secret technique from her mother. Adding sugar to the hot oil helped caramelize the chicken. This also added a deep buttery flavor. Just make sure not to burn the sugar, otherwise it will taste bitter.
The resulting dish is comfort in a bowl. The chicken falls off the bone and no single ingredient sticks out. Instead, all of the layers create a mellow, complex flavor that made all of us in class scoop extra sauce over our rice. This experience was invaluable. With an understanding of the Latin trinity and my cubes of sofrito in the freezer, I feel confident that I can make up my own dishes with a Latin flair.
Pollo Guisado (Stewed Chicken)
2 pounds chicken thighs and legs
1 bell pepper (red or green), diced
1 small onion, diced
2 tablespoons oil (canola or vegetable)
1/4 cup pitted olives with pimientos, drained and diced
2 garlic cloves, smashed and minced
1 teaspooon sugar
1 can of tomato sauce (8 ounces)
1 teaspoon oregano
2 teaspoons garlic powder
salt and pepper to taste
8 ounces water
2 tablespoons sofrito
Cilantro, chopped (optional for garnish)
Rince the chicken and pat dry. Remove the skin if desired. Season with salt, pepper, oregano and garlic powder. Set aside for 10 minutes.
Heat the oil in a large pan. Add the sugar and cook until it caramelizes and turns dark amber. Do not stir the sugar. Turn off the heat and promptly add the chicken.
Toss the chicken in the oil and sugar then turn on the heat to medium and saute for 3 minutes on each side.
Add the sofrito, tomato sauce, onions, bell pepper, olives and water. simmer, covered, on low until the chicken is tender and cooked through (approximately 30 – 45 minutes). Add water if necessary and adjust salt to taste. Stir every 15 minutes until done.
Garnish with cilantro.
Chef Eileen Barett
Boneless chicken breast or bone-in quartered chicken can also be used for this recipe.
Beef stew pieces can be substituted for the chicken to make Carne Guisada.
This is slightly modified from the original recipe to reflect what was done in the class.
When I made this at home, I substituted half of the water with white wine.