The Miracle of Mirepoix
I’m gonna teach you about something so elementary that it will seem almost silly. Being in possession of this grand culinary secret will make you feel like a gourmet insider. It may be what some of you need to leap from recipe slaves to recipe architects.
Here’s the secret. There’s a combination of aromatics (a term used to describe the ingredients used as the dominant flavoring agents for a recipe) that are used so frequently in European culinary traditions that they have been given their own name: mirepoix (MEER-ay-pwah) in France, soffrito in Italy. The magical combination is onion, celery and carrot. That’s it! Italians add garlic to make it a soffrito. How simple is that?
Mirepoix has a certain savory magic to it. It is neutral enough to be used with any protein, any herbs or spices or even any vegetables. Oddly enough, when you leave any given element out of the mirepoix, you can sense that something indefinable is missing. Mirepoix is the perfect sofa in a well-decorated room. It is that dark-wash, perfectly-fitting pair of jeans in your wardrobe that can take you from a PTA meeting to date night.
Your “bubbie” or “grandma” or “nana” probably knew about mirepoix intuitively. Previous generations just understood this as the base of flavor. Since we’ve taken a few generations off from cooking, this is something we need to re-learn.
Where can you find mirepoix? Liquidy foods are the usual suspects: stocks, soups, stews and sauces. Bolognese sauce, chicken noodle soup and boeuf bourguignon all start with mirepoix. Heck, chicken soup is just broth, mirepoix and chicken with noodles.
Ah, what to do with this nugget of culinary wisdom of the ages? Improvise! My mom dropped off a hambone the other day. I could turn that into a soup- start with mirepoix, add stock, add some split peas, and a bay leaf and I’ve got split pea soup. Or I could ditch the split peas, add black-eyed beans and collard greens and have a totally different soup. Got a pork roast that’s threatening to freezer-burn? A little mirepoix, some flavorful cooking liquid and you’ve got a braise. Want a saucy chicken dish? Cook your chicken, transfer it to the oven or covered ceramic dish to keep warm. Add oil, sauté mirepoix with some mushrooms, sprinkle with flour to make a roux and add stock, dairy or both. Oh saucy joy!
How you cut your mirepoix is entirely situation-dependent. If you are just doing a soup, a simple chop will do. If you’re making stock, a really rough cut is fine. If you are adding it to a sauce, a beautiful brunoise will add both flavor and glam. Think about how you want it to look on the plate and how you want it to feel in your mouth. How do you want to experience a forkful?
Mirepoix isn’t as static as it might seem. You can play with the combination by using different kinds of vegetables in the same family or even with similar qualities. Onions can be substituted with leeks or shallots. Carrots can be replaced by parsnips- or maybe even beets or turnips. Celery can be replaced by celeriac or fennel bulb. Get the idea?
When you cook your mirepoix or soffrito, keep the heat to medium or medium low. You don’t want to burn these aromatics. You also don’t want to rush this part of the process, these ingredients are forming the foundation of your dish. They’ll need a bit of time to develop. Finally, always salt your mirepoix while you cook it. It really helps the finished flavor of the dish.
Understanding the mirepoix miracle has helped me take recipes from good to great. I’ll often see a recipe that sounds like a nice idea but I’ll think, “the flavor’ll need some mirepoix to reach its potential.” I’ve learned to understand this combination in recipes and play with the elements. “I’ll use leeks instead of onions so that I don’t overwhelm the flavor of the cheese.” If a dish calls for carrots, onion and celery, I can make very good substitutions if I don’t have one of the ingredients in my fridge because I understand what’s going on with that flavor profile.
So feel empowered. Impress your friends with your knowledge of mirepoix.