The cooking method for sofrito or sofregit (in Catalan), was first recorded in the Libre de Sent Soví, a Catalan recipe book from about 1324. Sofregit comes from the verb sofregir, which means to under fry. Most people think of under fry as fry lightly, but poach might be a better word to describe the process (similar to cooking duck legs in fat, at a low temperature to make duck confit). These days we think of a sofrito as containing onions, garlic, peppers (sometimes) and tomatoes, but the peppers and tomatoes didn’t arrive in Europe until after 1492.
Last week I came across a Sephardic Jewish recipe for a chicken sofrito by Claudia Roden. When I studied the ingredients, I realised that the recipe was more like the sofregit detailed in the Libre de Sent Sovi, than the modern Spanish sofrito. The Sephardic Jews came to Spain probably when the Romans conquered Iberia, though possibly beforehand, with the Phoenicians. It could be said that the Jews have influenced Spanish cuisine and culture just as much as the Romans and Moors. Most of the great Spanish stews are based on the Jewish Adafina and the Christian, Torta de Santiago (St. James’ Cake) is a derivative of Jewish Passover cake. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised to see a Spanish recipe adopted and adapted by the Jews when they were expelled from Spain in 1492.
Once I’d found the chicken sofrito recipe, I came across a lot more. This is a very popular dish in Egypt and Israel and can also used to cook beef, lamb and fish. I was interested to see Tori Avey and Yotam Ottolenghi include pimentón in their sofritos, since it arrived in Spain after the discovery of the New World, but then so did potatoes, which are a common ingredient in sofrito stew! Needless to say, I was influenced by all the recipes, but tried to keep things simple, in the manner of Claudia Roden and the Libre de Sent Sovi.
Sofrito Chicken recipe:
3lb free range chicken (jointed)
2 medium potatoes per person (cubed)
1 large onion (chopped)
1 head of garlic (peeled)
a level teaspoon ground turmeric
2 cardamom pods (cracked)
4 bay leaves
1 cup chicken stock
the juice of half a lemon
sea salt and cracked black pepper
extra virgin olive oil
This is quite easy, but it cooks slowly and will take about 3 hours.
Joint the chicken, sprinkle with salt and pepper, brown it in olive oil, then reserve.
Poach the potatoes in the same oil until tender (they don’t need to brown) and remove to a plate. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Caramelise the onions on a low heat – add more olive oil if necessary.
Mix in a whole head of garlic (bruised and peeled) plus two cardamom pods, which have been cracked open.
Put the chicken, skin side up, on top of the onions, along with the bay leaves. Sprinkle a level teaspoon of turmeric over the chicken and pour the stock and lemon juice on top.
Most recipes have this cooked covered, on top of the stove, but I put mine in the oven, on a gentle heat at 180ºC. Cook for an hour, turning the chicken at 15 minute intervals.
After 60 minutes, the chicken should be quite tender. Lift it gently out of the pot
and return the potatoes. Check the seasoning and put the chicken back on top.
Cook in the oven for a further 30 minutes, take the lid off for the last 15.
Serve with broad beans (cooked separately). Broad beans are the original Mediterranean bean – they were first domesticated in Israel 10,000 years ago! Most other beans were discovered in the Americas, but beans are so synonymous with the Jews in Spain, that the words judías and alubias (beans) are interchangeable (should you be in any doubt about this, just look up judías blancas with Google and you’ll find white beans). Apparently the Moors prefixed all food words with the people or country of origin. See here for more info.
Don’t be put off by the simplicity of this dish, the cardamom, garlic and turmeric really enhance and elevate the flavour of chicken – less is definitely more! I’m so glad I didn’t add pimentón, it would have been quite overwhelming. I recommend drinking a glass Grand Marquis Carignan/Cabernet Sauvignon (an award winning Egyptian wine) with the chicken sofrito.