The sofrito.


Doctors have been telling us for the past 20 years or more that we should be eating five fruits and veggies every day. But few of us pay much attention. First of all, there is still some confusion about what the doctors mean.

Is it five of each, or three of one and two of the other? In straight plain English, what it means is 400grs of fruit and 400grs of veggies every day. That translates to five normal size pieces of fruit and five portions of veggies each of about 80grs.

For the majority of people that means so much fruit and veg they don’t even attempt to eat the recommended daily amount. This is a pity because research from all over the world shows that fruit and veg can help to prevent certain ailments. Yet surveys on the public’s lifestyle reveal that most of us don’t eat enough fruit and veg. Apart from vegetarians, few of us are following the doctors’ orders.

It’s easy to get those five fruits every day because we can have some for breakfast and desserts and also use it for between meals nibbles. Yet most people are not eating five fruits per day.

Look how easy it is to get your daily quota. You can have the juice and pulp of two oranges for breakfast, an apple at mid-morning, a pear for lunchtime dessert and a small bunch of grapes after dinner.

There go the five fruits and there are still plenty of others you could have had for afternoon or late evening nibbles.

Some people, especially Britons, will tell you that eating five portions of vegetables every day is simply out of the question. It seems like an enormous amount of food — and not even one’s favourite food.

If the thought of two or three vegetables on your plate twice a day is off-putting, then you should take your veggies the Spanish way. This entails cooking them with the meat or the fish so that they become an integral part of the recipe and not simply an accompaniment or side dish.

When eating at home I am 95 per cent vegetarian and I cook my veggies mainly with grains and pulses, a combination doctors also recommend. The beauty of eating veggies with pasta, rice, cous-cous, polenta or one of the many pulses, is that a dish can contain five vegetables and you are barely aware of it.

It is commonly thought that a rice dish, say, cooked with nothing but vegetables, will be bland and unappetising. The opposite is the case: when properly cooked, such dishes are packed with flavour. And you can can make tasty vegetable dishes without having to use stock cubes for extra flavour.

The best way to do this is to make them in the traditional Spanish style — using the great taste booster known as the sofrito. I’ve written about sofrito before and of its uses in meat dishes, but this is a good time to do a repeat because it will help many people to get their five daily veggies in the easiest possible way.

The making of a good sofrito depends on a simple golden rule: it cannot be rushed. You must allow about 45 minutes. This may seem like an awful long time for the simple operation of sautéing onions and tomatoes, but there is no other process of making a really good sofrito. It is the only way to achieve the thick jam-like consistency of the classic sofrito. When possible, make the sofrito in the saucepan or earthenware dish in which you will be cooking the vegetables.

A successful sofrito calls for a good amount of olive oil. For 400grs of peeled and finely chopped onions and six ramellet tomatoes you will need 175mls of virgen extra olive oil. Put the saucepan on a very low heat, add the oil and let it become warm.

Add the finely chopped onions to the warm oil and stir with a wooden spoon. Cook the onions very slowly for 15 minutes or until they start to turn golden. Peel the tomatoes, chop them finely, and stir them into the onions. Continue to cook for another 15 minutes and stir in a wineglass of boiling water. As the water slowly evaporates the sofrito will take on the all essential jam-like consistency. Don’t be tempted to rush this stage. A sofrito must never be watery. If it is, the dish you are making will be lacking in flavour.

This is the basic sofrito. If using it for a meat or fish dish you could add fish or meat stock instead of water. Most cooks would include garlic as well as herbs such as parsley, rosemary, thyme or bay leaves. Depending on its final destination, a sofrito could be seasoned with nutmeg, pepper or a glass of sherry.

You must also bear in mind that a sofrito is not a tomato sauce. Don’t fall into the trap of adding lots of tomatoes for extra flavour. A sofrito that’s short on tomatoes will always be better than one with too much.

Once you have a good sofrito the making of a tasty vegetables dish with rice, pasta or pulses is simple. To the sofrito in the saucepan add the amount of stock you will need. For an arroz seco (a paella-like dish in which the stock is completely absorbed by the rice)) add twice the volume of stock as rice.

When the stock comes to the boil, add the vegetables, starting with the root veggies as they take longer to cook. After about eight minutes add the rice, stirring from time to time. At intervals, add the other veggies, ending with spinach and any other green leaf varieties that need only a couple of minutes.

As an extra flavour booster you can stir in finely chopped parsley and garlic five minutes before the end of cooking time. The dish is ready when the rice has absorbed the liquid and is as soft as you like it.

A dish like this, to which you could also add cooked pulses such as white beans or chickpeas, could include leeks, spring onions, courgettes, red or green peppers, cauliflower, broccoli, green beans and just about any veggie that takes your fancy.

So in a single dish and at one meal, you can have your daily five. It could hardly be easier.