Soffritto (+ recipes)
When you go to a greengrocer in Italy they'll usually ask you, at the end of your shopping, if you want some odori. If you signal a yes, they'll throw a couple of onions, a carrot, a stalk of celery and a bunch of parsley into your bag. There's never any charge - this gesture of goodwill is for your loyal custom, and a nod to a tradition that has defined the flavours of Italian cooking for centuries.
Odori, which means "smells", gives any Italian recipe its typical fragrant aroma. Throw these aromatics into a pot when you simmer a piece of meat to create a rich, sweet broth. Chop the odori finely and it becomes battuto, a word that literally means "beaten". You might put this in the bottom of a roasting pan before you roast a piece of meat or fish, and then once it's cooked and resting, add a spash of wine and some water, give it a good stir to pick up the pan brownings, bring to a fast boil, thicken with a little cornflour and then strain for a wonderful, richly flavoured gravy.
If you cook the battuto gently in olive oil or butter to coax out the vegetables' sweetness and inviting fragrance, you create a mixture known as soffritto. This forms the starting point for the majority of dishes in the repertoire of Italian home cooks, and, in various flavour variations, for good cooking in so many cuisines. Whether in boeuf bourguignon, risotto, bolognaise sauce, paella, jambalaya, tagine and even Indian curries, a cooked mixture of aromatic vegetables provides a backbone of flavour and depth - hardly surprising that it is held in reverence by chefs and cooks the world over and often referred to as the "holy trinity".
The classic ratio for Italian soffritto, and its French kissing cousin, mirepoix, is two parts onion to one part carrot and celery. Parsley leaves, garlic, fennel, leeks, thyme, bay, peppercorns and sometimes finely diced cured meats, such as pancetta, bacon or prosciutto scraps, can find their way into the mix. There don't seem to be any rules on this - use whatever combination you like, as long as you have double the amount of onion. I find that carrot makes the mixture quite sweet, so I usually swap it for leeks in chicken and seafood dishes, and leave it in for beef and venison, which can take the carrot's sweetness.
In Indian cooking, a similar flavour base will be made with onions, garlic and ginger, while Creole and Cajun cooking call for onions, celery and capsicums. Puerto Ricans make their version as a puree with onions, garlic, peppers and coriander, whereas Germany's suppengrün (soup greens) use carrot, celeriac and leek, and the Spanish sofrito is made with paprika and tomatoes.
In these humble ingredients the magic happens in a dish. It's this - not the prawns or the beef or the chicken - that delivers that blissful moment when you take the first bite, shut your eyes and sigh with pleasure.
When making a soup or stew, cook the mixture just until it softens and smells aromatic, but for a pasta sauce cook it down until the vegetables practically disappear, leaving a thick, pasty texture with a ton of flavour.
Add other vegetables such as carrots or fennel and even some bacon, depending on what you are using it for. To speed the prep, coarsely chop the vegetables then pulse to a coarse dice in a food processor. It freezes well. Get the recipe
Moroccan spice mixes add a defining cultural flavour to the soffritto base mixture. With its fragrant, gentle spiciness, chermoula spice mix is good for bringing a mild tanginess to fish, chicken or vegetables, while ras el hanout is traditionally used for long, slow cooking of more richly flavoured meats, such as beef.
If you can't access ready-made mixes, make your own using a combination of spices such as ginger, pepper, cumin, cinnamon and paprika, as well as garlic and lemon zest. For chicken and fish tagines, add some saffron. Get the recipe
• For more great Annabel Langbein recipes see her new winter annual Annabel Langbein A Free Range Life: Share the Love (Annabel Langbein Media, $24.95) or visit annabel-langbein.com.