tasting a bit of history at The Festival of Ideas...
Last spring, Communal Table (my food/art business) set up shop for a day of tasting and story telling at the Festival of Ideas For a New City on New York City's lower east side. Communal Table invited people to"taste the neighborhood" and set out bread and dips that typified the cooking of the various people that have lived and thrived for generations in this thronging, historic neighborhood.
We offered oniony "schmaltz," to represent Eastern Europeans, (albeit a version made with olive oil instead of chicken fat to please Vegan, Vegetarian, Halal and Hipster denizens who abound in the neighborhood today.) Also spicy Chinese chili oil, and a pan-Latino Sofrito which had Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Spaniards debating all day long about the origin of this flavorful combo of peppers, onions and herbs.
As people dipped and tasted, we asked them to "listen" asthe flavors in their mouth told their brain a storyabout history and culture, and to be aware how each taste told a completely different story. Even if they professed ignorance of history, or knowledge about the city’s waves of immigration, or of Chinese cooking practices; we promised the flavors would tell them stories. It was a simple exercise; tasting and listening, and it seemed to move people. I watched people’s faces as they let the flavors speak, and saw that wonderful “aha!” moment when their taste buds explained a little piece of cultural history.
After the tasting, we invited folks to share recipes or list ingredients that described their own stories. These were written on colorful cards that we hung on a clothesline for other passersby to read and comment on. My favorite was from a young girl who explained that her mother’s Korean and her father’s Norwegian- so her diet is split between rice and potatoes. Her parents, she said, are divorced now and her father’s girlfriend is from the Caribbean, so she had no trouble identifying the Sofrito.
Throughout the day, people asked for my sofrito recipe, which made me feel proud. Yow! One guy almost cried, telling me he’d recently lost his mother and hadn’t tasted that flavor since she’d died. I’m first generation Eastern European, Jewish, and my people never ate such a delicious, spicy, lively concoction, so I couldn't call a grandmother or an Auntie for a recipe. Instead I researched cookbooks and the web, and made a mash-up version that included tomato, which is not traditional for Puerto Ricans, but is common in the Dominican Republic. I blended the raw ingredients into a fairly smooth puree, which I sautéed in oil that was colored and flavored with achiote seeds. Usually, Sofrito is used as a seasoning, dolled-out by spoonfuls to flavor beans or stew, but for the Festival of Ideas I made it strong and extra soupy, all the better for dipping.
Cross Cultural Sofrito for The Festival of Ideas
1 large Spanish onion
1 green & 2 red peppers (most recipes call for more green than red but I don’t like green peppers) plus 2 jalapeños (all the peppers seeded!)
2-3 plum tomatoes,
4-5-6+ cloves of garlic,
1/2 c. pimento stuffed Manzanilla olives,
1 tablespoon capers,
A big handful of fresh cilantro,
a couple of sprigs of parsley (stems and all)
salt and pepper.
Blend first 5 ingredients in a food processor, then coarsely chop and add: olives, capers and herbs.
Sauté in ½ c. annatto oil* for 10 – 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add a splash of red wine vinegar, olive oil, and some water to thin to a good “dip” consistency.
*to make annato oil: warm a teaspoon of achiote seeds in 1/2 c. olive oil until the oil turns golden orange. Discard the seeds, but save the oil.