I’m taking a break from sauces this week to bring you something that you’ll run into pretty often if you spend any time reading about sauces. You’ve quite likely cooked it many times before but maybe didn’t know it had a name. If you’ve ever chopped a medley of onions, carrots and celery, either to put in a salad or to sauté in preparation for making soup, stew or sauce, you’ve made a mirepoix.
The mirepoix, complete with its regional variations, is probably the most common flavor base in cooking. The French gave it the name “mirepoix,” but in Louisiana, it’s called the “holy trinity” and is the basis for a number of Cajun and Creole dishes. The Italian version is called “soffritto” and is not to be confused with “sofrito,” which comes from Spain. In India, you’ll find a “tarka” giving flavor to the pot; Indonesian recipes start with a “bumbu”; and in Portugal, it’s a “refogado.” The German version, “suppengrün,” means “soup greens”; the Polish word, “wloszczyzna,” means “Italian stuff.” These regional variations do add and subtract ingredients and also sometimes include some spices.
All the versions are basically some chopped-up vegetables served raw, roasted or sautéed in butter, oil or ghee. The usual proportions are two parts onion to one part each of celery and carrots. Everything should be chopped to about the same-sized pieces so that they can cook evenly, but how big or small you make each bit depends on how you’re planning to use them. If they will be served as a side or put into a stew, you can cut them into larger chunks. For soups or salads, a medium dice might serve well; for sauces, you may want to chop them as small as possible.
“To bring a sweeter flavor to beans, instead of the pork, or in addition to it, sauté some diced onions, carrot and celery-the mixture known as mirepoix-with oil and a little salt until completely soft and stir into any type of beans. Lentils, which cook more quickly, can be added into the cooked mirepoix with the water and all cooked together.”
I thought preparing a mirepoix was pretty straightforward until I read a section of Michael Pollan‘s “Cooked” where he learns about mirepoix. He describes taking cooking classes from Samin Nosrat, who instructs that changing the size of the dice, the cooking time and the temperature at which the mirepoix is cooked are all ways that can give you results that vary widely in terms of texture and flavor. It’s OK to chop them roughly for a long-simmering soup, and other times, like when making sauce, you want to chop the vegetables finely so that they can, in the words of Nosrat, “melt away into nothingness [to] become this invisible layer of deliciousness.” Further, she says, “It can be made darker and more caramelized, or lighter and vegetal, all depending on the heat and speed you cook them at.”
Pollan points out that the addition of mirepoix to food makes it safer to eat, because its microbial compounds can help slow any spoiling. But more importantly, he also muses that a mirepoix that is cooked slowly over a low flame is broken down in a way that seems to bring out that savory flavor that has become known as umami, a much-sought-after taste that gives dishes a deep and meaty character that can really enhance a meal.
When you’re chopping, you might as well make some extra, since a mirepoix will keep in the refrigerator for at least several days if it’s raw and even longer once cooked. Use it to flavor beans, as Cal Peternell suggests; add it to soup, sauce or stew; or prepare it by julienning or roasting. However you use it, it’s guaranteed to fill your house with an amazing aroma.
Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.