Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Zen and the Craft of Sofrito

I was working on a column about cheese when I remembered that a conversation about Robert Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was due to be broadcast on VPR at that very moment. Being constitutionally unable to sit mindfully still and listen for an hour, I decided to listen while preparing sofrito for the future.
Why sofrito? you might well ask, as I would have two days ago. But yesterday I had a visit from an old friend from California who stops by once a year. I had thought I’d missed him, or that he had forsaken his annual trip.
I was working on that selfsame article yesterday when I glimpsed a white t-shirt moving past my office window but when I went to the door no-one was there. No ONE, but a voice boomeranged around the corner of the porch and, when I peeked, there was Paul, talking on his cell phone. He continued to talk while we hugged. He continued to talk to this person in California whom he had just left, while I, whom he had not seen for a year, walked out to the garden to see if I would get any okra before the frost. It had simmered in place most of this rainy summer, but now in sunnier weather was shooting out it’s beautiful hibiscus flowers, some of which had given way to a fruiting body whose insides would cunningly echo the flower in shape and form, and please the mouth when dipped into egg and flour and fried in butter and olive oil. In the background Paul’s voice continued to boom. He appeared to be talking about motorcycles.
Paul is a very sweet man, I look forward to seeing him, but he is not a person who asks many questions. He does, however, like to talk, so after he’d clapped his phone off and we’d found a sunny spot on the chilly deck, he described in no uncertain terms where his political sympathies lay – which closely approximated my own – and how the American People seem to mistake the deadly seriousness of the contemporary political scene for the hijinks of a reality show, what the weather had been like in California, what he and his significant other had been doing for the past year, and that a pot-luck dinner was to be held the next evening to initiate the sailing weekend – the annual Fruit Bowl – which was the ostensible reason for his annual trip as it has been for the last twenty or so years. The real one, of course, is seeing old friends.
“And what will be your offering for the potluck dinner?” I asked in a brief pause, thinking that he and our friend, with whom he was staying, would stop by a deli on the way up Route 7 and pick something up.
“I’m going to make my artichoke casserole,” he said. “It’s delicious, a no-brainer, and a couple handfuls of crushed saltines on top,” he rubbed his hands together over an imaginary casserole, “and it’s good to go.”
Surprised, I asked him if he did a lot of cooking, having never guessed it. He’s a retired steel-worker, worked on the Alaska pipeline and tall city buildings. Turns out he does. And had a few, welcome, words of advice for me.
His significant other – “not-married going on twenty-some years, now,” he said – is a vegetarian, while Paul is a dedicated carnivore, so he’s learned to cook both ways. “I do lots of soups,” he said. And he always starts with a sofrito.
“I make up a sofrito when there’s lots of tomatoes, put ‘em in the processor along with hot peppers, cilantro, onions and garlic, smash ‘em up, make up a whole bunch, then put it in little plastic bags and freeze it.”
He heats some oil, adds the sofrito, fries it, adds chicken broth and white beans, then divides it into two portions and adds chunks of ham to his own. He’d just stopped by the Locker and ordered a ham, as well as pounds of bacon to take back to California with him. “Yeah, the whole cabin fills up with the smell of cob smoke,” he laughed.
But I was thinking – I had lots of tomatoes, and my garden produced cilantro and Serrano peppers this year to beat the band. I also had garlic and onions. “What a great idea,” I said, and I clapped my hands. Paul smiled shyly.
As I followed him across the deck on the way to his car, he inspected my Big Green Egg, telling me what a great grill it was, “it’s like one of those middle-eastern things,” he said.
“A tandoori oven,” suggested I.
“Yeah, like a ceramic oven, holds the heat,” he said, “makes a dynamite chicken.”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m making a chicken in it tonight.”
“Be sure,” he said, looking very serious, “to prick the skin all over. Let’s the fat bubble out and crisps up the skin.” I considered this. It’s not something I usually do because I’m afraid of losing juices and making the chicken dry, but in the high heat of the tandoori, perhaps it would work.
“Seriously,” he said, nodding his head.
The day before, I had spatchcocked that chicken, meaning that I had cut out the backbone with a meat saw and done a little damage to the breast bone. This allows you to open up the chicken so that all the skin is on one side and all the inside is on the other, and lets you place it flat on the grill. Here’s a video of it, being done with kitchen shears.
Then I brined that chicken, this way: Place about two cups of water in a saucepan with a tablespoon of sugar, 6 tablespoons of salt, and a bayleaf. Or you may add whatever seasonings you like. Bring it to a boil to dissolve the sugar and salt, then top off the pan with cold water. Place the chicken in a large bowl and pour the water over it. Add enough cold water to cover the chicken, and place in the fridge for several hours or overnight.
This might seem a lot of work for a chicken, but it took about 15 minutes – maybe 3 minutes to spatchcock it and the rest just time to heat the water. My biggest problem is to remember to do it the day before I want to grill the chicken.
So the evening of Paul’s visit, I placed the spatchcocked and brined chicken on its skin side first on the grill, and let it grill for twenty or so minutes, then turned it over. That’s when I followed Paul’s advice and pricked that skin all over, and I must say it worked beautifully, the skin crisp and succulent, the flesh moist and flavorful. I left that 4 pound chicken on the grill at about 400 degrees for another 40 minutes.
Jumping back to where we began, to moments before the Persig program and my thoughts about sofrito, I turned on the radio and surveyed the tomatoes, the onions, the garlic, and the hot peppers, which were already on my counter. Litter. Grace. Whatever. I dashed out to the garden to pick handfuls of cilantro, and back in the kitchen took some deep breaths. Becoming engrossed in the program, I quartered the onions, seeded the peppers, smashed and peeled the garlic, and put them all in the food processor with the cilantro with such intention, mindfulness, that it seemed that Persig or Edward Espe Brown or, indeed, Paul, were at my side.
If you want to do this, probably I should give you some guidance about amounts, ratios, and so on. Except that it’s really a matter of taste: with one rather large onion, and 4 rather small serranos, and 4 or 5 large cloves of garlic, and the couple of handfuls of cilantro, I added perhaps 30 medium-sized tomatoes. And a tablespoon of sea salt. It seemed perfect to me, and it made about 2 ½ quarts.
Another thought – there are all kinds of sofritos. I never think of tomatoes when I think of sofrito, which is, really, only a mixture of aromatics that you sauté in a hot frying pan before you get into the meat of the matter. Like a mirepoix – you know, which is onions, garlic, carrots, maybe celery. This sofrito was very like a salsa; indeed, as I understand it both words mean ‘sauce’ with the added intention of sofrito to mean sautéed sauce.
I clean and chunk up the tomatoes and whir them up in the food processor, too. Okay, I like my salsa chunky, cut individually, but this is faster and perhaps a better texture to flavor that winter soup. Tomatoes into the big bowl with the already chopped vegetables, salt added, and this is not too shabby to dip up with a tortilla. Later, I will reach the conclusion that the sofrito should be added to the soup in the last twenty minutes, in a last-ditch attempt to save some of the perishable cilantro flavor. Later still, I will determine to fry most of it before adding the meat, or the chicken broth – whichever way I’m leaning – at the beginning, and add the remaining a few minutes before serving it.
By the time the radio scholars are talking about Zen as “not a way to change the world, just a way to change your individual space in the world,” I am filling the last freezer bag, and I finish labeling half a dozen of the quart bags with “Paul’s Sofrito 9/08”. Really. It was like that – my wonderful tasks of making sofrito and listening to a discussion of Persig’s Zen and motorcycles coincided exactly – end of program, I’m carrying the sofrito down the steps to the freezer.

Not, as you might think, an advertisement for Ziploc

Next, a small bowl of un-sauteed sofrito – very finely chopped salsa – and some chips accompany me back to my computer and I sink from mindfulness of sofrito into mindfulness of cheese – two ends, if I’m not mistaken, of the spectrum of food, each of the twain meeting here.
I hope to bring that same single-mindedness to the task of finding that old copy of Persig’s book and rereading it.


Mary said...

I found your blog by way of Facebook. You had commented on a mutual friend's wall that you missed him in Vermont this year, and wondered if perhaps he was afraid you'd write about him again. This piqued my curiosity, so I did a web search and it didn't take long for me to find "Zen and the Craft of Sofrito," which you wrote last year. I enjoyed reading about your visit with Paul, because he is my brother. I could see him and hear his voice in your story. And yes, he is fun to watch in the kitchen, and just a great person all around. My dad once told me, "You know, if I were ever to find myself in a tight spot, I'd want Paul with me. He gets things done, and he doesn't waste any time doing it. If he sees something wrong, he just fixes it!" I wish I lived closer to him, but we are on opposite sides of the country. So it was a delight reading your blog and knowing exactly who you were talking about!

Anyway, thanks for the enjoyable read. I've bookmarked your blog site and hope to try out a few recipes!

Mary Z. Fowler
Alexandria, VA

sharon parquette nimtz said...

Nice to meet you, Mary. That's you who send the emails to Paul that he forwards with a click ;^)

He's a great guy. Really missed him this year.

Mary said...

I can tell when he's up and about out there in sunny California...his forwarded e-mails start hitting my east-coast in box around 1:00 pm. I can practically set my watch by his Sunday night calls. He's faithful about keeping in touch and I love him dearly. Out of my four brothers, I think he's my favorite (but shhhh! don't tell the others!) ;-)

sharon parquette nimtz said...

Shhh. (I'm gonna tell him, though)