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.
Ready in 30 mins. Makes 6-7 cups
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
4 onions, finely chopped
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 stalks celery, finely chopped
2 large leeks, white part and half the green sliced into finger- widths
2 bay leaves
1 Tbsp thyme leaves
1 tsp salt ground black pepper, to taste
Heat oil in a medium pot, add all other ingredients and cook until lightly softened (15-20 minutes). Discard bay leaves. Soffritto base can be stored in a jar in the fridge for up to a week or divided into cup-sized measures and frozen.
Annabel says: 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.
Chicken Tagine with Pumpkin and Chickpeas
Ready in 1¼ hours. Serves 4-6
1 cup soffritto base (see above)
400g can chopped or cherry tomatoes
3 cups chicken stock
2 Tbsp cornflour
6-8 bone-in skinless chicken thighs
600g pumpkin, peeled, deseeded and cut into 2cm dice
400g can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
10 dried apricots, halved
4 tsp ras el hanout or Moroccan spice mix, or more to taste
A pinch of chilli flakes
2 Tbsp chopped coriander or mint leaves, to garnish
If cooking in the oven, preheat oven to 180C fanbake. Mix soffritto base with tomatoes, stock and cornflour in a large pot or ovenproof casserole dish. Add all other ingredients except herbs, season and stir to combine, pressing chicken into sauce. Cover and simmer on the stovetop, stirring now and then, until chicken is cooked (45 minutes) or bake until chicken is cooked through (about 1 hour). Garnish with herbs to serve. Delicious served with lemony couscous or quinoa.
Annabel says: 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.
No-Stir Smoked Chicken and Mushroom Risotto
Ready in 40 mins. Serves 4
1 Tbsp butter or olive oil
2 cups risotto rice
½ cup white wine
1 cup soffritto base (see above)
200g mushrooms, sliced
4 cups hot vegetable or chicken stock
2 cups diced pumpkin
1 Tbsp finely chopped rosemary leaves
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
About 200g smoked chicken, ham or chorizo, diced
4-5 handfuls baby spinach or chopped spinach leaves
50g parmesan, finely grated
Heat butter or oil in a large, heavy-based pot, add rice and stir over heat for a minute or two to lightly toast. Add wine and allow to evaporate, then stir in soffritto base, mushrooms, hot stock, pumpkin, rosemary, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until rice is creamy and just tender (check after 18-20 minutes). It should be very sloppy, so add a little water if it dries out.
When rice is almost cooked, stir in smoked chicken and spinach. Cook until spinach is just wilted, then remove from heat and stir in parmesan. Adjust salt and pepper to taste and serve immediately.