Recipe: Spaghetti with Winter Tomato Sauce and Ricotta
I never heard the word soffritto when I was growing up, but I knew the aroma. Whenever my mother started a tomato sauce or a ragù I was aware of a deep, sweet essence of vegetable wafting through the kitchen. And when I finally bothered to watch what she was doing, I saw onion, carrot, celery, parsley, and sometimes garlic simmering in olive oil. That is a basic soffritto, the underpinning of just about every well-made Italian soup, braise, or sauce. It’s usually a first step, one that lays a solid foundation.
There’s no English equivalent for the word soffritto. I think that says something about the complexly moral Anglo-Saxon relationship with food, which M.F.K. Fisher struggled to come to terms with for much of her life. The French, of course, have a word, mirepoix, after the lackluster eighteenth-century Duc de Mirepoix, whose only accomplishment seems to have been persuading his personal chef to name this culinary method after him.
In Italy there are actually two words, one for each stage of the procedure. Battuto, from battere, meaning to pound or beat, refers to the chopping (or battering, I guess) of the raw ingredients. Soffritto, from soffriggere, to fry, is what happens when the stuff hits the pan, when the aromas begin. I’ve heard these terms used interchangeably, but I believe these are their proper meanings.
In its most traditional form a soffritto consists of onion, carrot, and celery, all sautéed in some type of fat. Leeks or shallots can be a good swap for the onion. Sometimes a little sweet or hot fresh chili is appropriate. You can add garlic if you want that flavor. Sometimes I add sturdy herbs such as rosemary or thyme, whose flavors get released by the heat and become full and mellow. I’m not crazy about sage in a soffritto, it always goes a little musty on me. And speaking of musty, I avoid all dried herbs, including Southern Italy’s much loved dried oregano. That stuff when cooked down spreads the scent of pencil lead into everything it touches. I understand that not everyone feels this way, but what can I say? Flat-leaf parsley is a classic in soffritto, but I don’t like the way it goes dark and loses its fresh edge. I prefer to add it when the dish is finished. I do like the flavor of celery leaves in certain dishes, so I’ll often add a handful to my soffritto in addition to or sometimes instead of the stalk. I always add celery leaves to my base for pasta e fagiole. My mother taught me that.
I recall my grandmother occasionally beginning her soffritto in warm lard or chicken fat. That smelled wonderful. Then at some point she began using Crisco, an ingredient that as a young hippie I was repulsed by on principle. Strangely I don’t recall the smell of it. Did it have a smell? Often I use a mix of butter and olive oil, if I’ll be making a braised chicken dish or a sauce containing wild mushrooms. That combination is a classic starting point for many risottos. Pancetta is my stand-in for lard. I use it frequently in a soffritto, even with otherwise all-vegetarian dishes, such as a summer ciambotta. Pancetta needs to go in before any other soffritto ingredient so it can release its fat and brown; if you add it along with, say, onion, the onion may burn before the pancetta is crisp. With stew meat I usually remove it from the pan after browning and then begin the soffritto. Anchovies are good too, if they’re where you’re directing your flavor. I’ll add them after I sauté my onion or celery or whatever, so they don’t get overly sautéed and concentrated.
There are different ways to cook a soffritto. Sometimes I want a quick, lightly sautéed flavor so my dish stays fresh-tasting. I’ll heat my oil and cook my soffritto fast, so the vegetables retain a bit of rawness. But for, say, a beef ragu, I might want it to cook long and slow to develop more caramelization, which will ultimately deepen the finished dish. I suppose these two approaches are analogous to the light and dark roux used in the cooking of New Orleans, both correct but serving different purposes.
Here’s a recipe for a winter tomato sauce that I make variations of all the time. It’ll show you how to go about making a pretty standard soffritto that starts with pancetta. I find that a well turned out soffritto does amazing things for canned tomatoes. There’s a lot going on in this dish that you might not necessarily see in your pasta bowl but you’ll taste on your tongue. All because of the soffritto.
Spaghetti with Winter Tomato Sauce and Ricotta
(Serves 5 as a first course)
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 approximately ¼-inch-thick round of pancetta, cut into small dice
1 large shallot, cut into small dice
1 large carrot, cut into small dice
1 small inner celery stalk, diced, with the leaves, lightly chopped
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 small sprigs rosemary, the leaves chopped
4 sprigs thyme, the leaves chopped
A big pinch of ground nutmeg
A splash of sweet vermouth
½ cup chicken broth
1 35-ounce can plum tomatoes, well chopped
1 pound spaghetti
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, lightly chopped
¾ cup whole milk ricotta
A chunk of grana Padano cheese
Choose a wide, shallow sauce pan, and place it over medium heat. Add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the pancetta, and sauté until it just starts to crisp but still retains a little tenderness. Now add the shallot, carrot, and the celery and its leaves. Sauté, stirring around occasionally until the mix is fragrant, soft, and just starting to turn lightly golden, about 5 minutes. If the vegetables start getting too browned before getting tender, turn the heat down of bit. Add the garlic, rosemary, and thyme. Season with a little salt, black pepper, and the nutmeg, and sauté to release these flavors, about another minute. You don’t want the garlic to get dark.
Add a splash of sweet vermouth, and let it bubble away. Add the chicken broth and the tomatoes, and cook, uncovered, at a lively bubble for about 10 minutes.
In the meantime set up a pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add salt, and drop in the spaghetti.
Turn the heat off under the sauce, and add the butter, mixing it in. Taste for seasoning.
When the spaghetti is al dente, drain the it (save about ½ cup of the cooking water), and tip it into a large, warmed serving bowl. Add the sauce, the parsley, and a drizzle of fresh olive oil. Toss well. Add a little of the cooking water if the texture is too thick, and toss again, briefly. Spoon a dollop of ricotta onto each serving, and finish with some grated grana Padano.