Classic flavor bases are made up of a mixture of three or four aromatic vegetables, sometimes herbs, and occasionally a small bit of meat. Aromatic vegetables, which give off deep, well-rounded flavors and pleasing aromas when cooked, are the core of flavor bases. Aromatics create a flavor base; they are the foundation on which a dish is built. This base starts with what cooks often refer to as “the holy trinity” or trilogy of aromatics.
French: The classic French flavor base known as mirepoix (pronounced meer-uh-pwah) is a combination of chopped onions, celery, and carrots made with twice as much onion as carrot and celery.
French cooks occasionally add a bay leaf or a little fresh thyme to their mirepoix.
Cajun: The classic cajun variation on the French mirepoix is to substitute green bell pepper for the carrots, so you end up with a combination of onions, celery and peppers made with twice as much onion as celery and pepper.
Italian: The Italian soffritto (pronounced soh-FREE-toh) varies from region to region, and may be as simple as a chopped onion and a little garlic, or, like mirepoix, might include fennel. Italian cooks often like to use flavorful meats (especially pancetta or prosciutto) in the soffritto to give a hearty dish a deeper, richer flavor.
It’s not unusual to find a leaf or two of sage or a few sprigs of parsley in an Italian soffritto.
Tex-Mex: There is quite a variance of “trinities” used in Tex-Mex cooking as it all depends on what it is that you’re making. Many consider jalapeño, cilantro and lime to be the “Tex-Mex Trinity”, but these are not always what you start with. *Whatever you do, remember to add acidic elements (like lime or tomato) only after the aromatics have cooked to the desired texture as the acid stops the cooking process!
- Mexican cuisine: Uses 3 types of dried chili peppers to make mole sauce- ancho, pasilla, and guajillo.
- Spanish cuisine: Garlic, onion, and tomato
Asian: In Asian cooking the trilogies vary, but often include chili pepper, onion, and garlic. Add to this ginger, lemongrass, or spicy basil depending on what flavor profile you are going for. Further flavor enhancements include citrus peel or mint.
Preparing the Aromatics:
The first step in creating a distinctive aromatic is to sweat the vegetables, a term used to describe cooking vegetables to draw out their moisture. The technique softens the vegetables without breaking them down. Heat a pan or pot over medium heat and add a small amount of cooking oil, usually vegetable oil or similar fat. Chop the veggies, making all the pieces the same size, usually about one fourth to one half inch. Add the veggies to the pan in an even layer and cook gently, stirring to prevent the vegetables from sticking or browning. Add a pinch of salt after a minute or two and continue stirring gently. After five to ten minutes, the vegetables should “glisten” a little, and take on a translucent appearance. The veggies, then, have been sweated. Add the spices and herbs to the trilogy, turning the heat to low to prevent burning. After a few minutes, the aroma will waft from the pan, filling the kitchen with the culinary fragrances.
*The Stir Fry Exception:
Stir fry dishes, common to Asian cuisines, don’t usually use the sweating technique, but rather opt for the sauté. The vegetables are cooked over a high heat, bringing out the sugars quickly while still retaining a bit of crunch. The herbs and spices may be added with the vegetables, or added just before the meat or fish. Stir fry is a quick cook method, and while the principle of aromatics remains the same, the application differs.
*When stir-frying, it is important to either use a very large (and VERY HOT) wok, or to work in small batches. The importance of this is so that your vegetables maintain their crunch and don’t become soggy!
The Aromatic Palette:
Combining vegetables with a specific set of spices and herbs creates a palette of flavors, flavors that enhance the other ingredients in any dish. Create your own aromatic palette by first learning the particular characteristics of regional spices and herbs. Experiment with ratios of vegetables to determine which flavors suit your taste. The vegetable portion influences the final flavors of your dish. Try various combinations of trilogies with different herbs and spices. With a repertoire of aromatic recipes, you’ll turn the most common of ingredients into culinary specialties!