The 'holy trinity' is the foundation of Southern cooking

July 10, 2013 

There is a common element that binds much of Southern-Creole cooking -- the vegetable base we call the "holy trinity" of copped celery, onions and bell pepper, but did you know that many cuisines use a similar combination as a beginning or foundation?

When so many people agree on a culinary principle, you can bet there's some merit to it.

The French started using their mirepoix (a mixture of chopped celery, onions and carrots) in the 18th Century, and they have changed nothing about it since. Mirepoix is commonly used in everything from stocks to sauces.

The vegetables are usually sautéed in butter or oil and the aromatics have a profound effect on French cuisine.

Likewise the holy trinity is the foundation of the Cajun- or Creole-style of cooking.

Italians get into the act with their soffritto, composed of onions, celery,

carrots, garlic and herbs. The Spanish and Portuguese call it sofrito and make it with garlic, onion, peppers and tomatoes.

There are many variations on the recipe and herbs or other vegetables might be added according to regional tradition, but the real success is found in the cooking technique.

Not all of the vegetables cook in the same amount of time, so those that take the longest, the onions and bell peppers, need to go into the pot first. The last to be cooked should always be the garlic as it burns quite easily and nothing ruins a recipe like scorched garlic.

There is one other crucial element to using this vegetable foundation correctly -- If you toss the vegetables into a hot pan and dance them around for a minute or two your efforts will be wasted. Think of the difference in flavor of a raw onion and one that has been slowly caramelized to a sweet, dark brown; that is the range of flavor that you have to work with.

Starting with the onions first sauté them for 4 or 5 minutes, then add the bell peppers and continue cooking for 3 or 4 minutes, then the celery for 3 or 4 minutes and finally the garlic. Your overall cooking time should be a minimum of 10 minutes.

One last word of caution; remember to season as you go. Add a pinch or two of freshly ground black pepper and a small pinch of red pepper flakes when you start and then about half way through, taste and season again as needed. Also remember that if you are using fresh herbs and add them at the beginning of a moderate- to long-cooking recipe they will be lost in the process. Dried spices are much more sturdy, but fresh spices should be added closer to the end.

CRAB AND CORN STEW

Fresh corn can now be found at farmers markets and there's nothing like it. Combine it with fresh crab meat and you have a delicious and cool summertime stew.

1 pound crab meat (jumbo lump if you can afford it)

1/4 cup diced smoked sausage

1 cup chopped yellow onion

1/2 cup chopped celery

1/2 cup chopped bell pepper

1 cup diced potato

2 cups fresh corn kernels

2 cups chicken stock (homemade is best)

1/2 cup dry white wine

3 cups whole milk

Tony Chachere's seasoning

Fresh ground black pepper

1-2 pinches red pepper flakes

Olive oil

1-2 tablespoons corn starch

Sauté the sausage until it is well-browned, then add the onions and cook for 5 minutes. Next add the celery and bell pepper and cook for 4 minutes more. Remember to season as you go. Next add the potato, corn and the wine and reduce by half. Add the milk and stock and simmer for 10 minutes. If the stew is not thick enough add 2/3 a tablespoon of corn starch to1/4 cup of cold water, mix well and whisk into the stew. Return to a simmer and repeat the process until the stew is as thick as you would like it. Remember that if you add too much cornstarch your stew will be ruined. Add the crab, taste and re-season as necessary. This stew is best after a couple of hours rest. Serve warm, but not too hot.

SHRIMP BOLOGNESE WITH PASTA

1 pound linguine or fettuccine

1/3 cup chopped smoked ham

1 pound large peeled shrimp

1 cup chopped onions

1/4 cup chopped celery

1/4 cup diced carrots

3-4 cloves chopped garlic

1 28 ounce can whole tomatoes

1 cup clam juice

1/2 cup white wine

1 cup green peas

2 pinches red pepper flakes

1-2 pinches Italian seasoning

Olive oil

Cook the pasta according to package directions, drain and set aside. Toss the ham in a little of the Italian seasoning and sauté in hot olive oil until browned. Remove and set the ham aside, add a little more oil if necessary and over a very hot flame sauté the shrimp for about 2 minutes, then remove and set aside. Reduce the flame and add the onions, seasoning with the red pepper flakes (again add oil if necessary) and cook for 5 minutes. Add the celery and carrots and cook for 5 minutes more, then add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the wine and reduce by half, then add the clam juice and tomatoes and simmer, using a wooden spoon to break up the tomatoes for about 15 minutes. Add the peas and cook until they are done. Combine the sauce, ham, shrimp and pasta, toss well and serve immediately.

SIMPLE SHRIMP AND RICE

1 pound peeled large shrimp

1 cup Thai jasmine rice

2 strips smoked bacon

1/2 cup chopped onion

1/3 cup chopped bell pepper

1/4 cup chopped celery

1/4 cup diced carrot

3-4 cloves of chopped garlic

Freshly ground black pepper

1-2 pinches red pepper flakes

Cook the rice with 2 cups of water in an electric rice cooker. Fry the bacon until crispy, remove and drain on paper towels. If you want to be traditional use the bacon grease to cook, but if you want to be healthy drain the grease and replace with a little olive oil. Cook the shrimp in a very hot skillet for about 1 minute on a side, then remove and set aside. Sauté the onions for 4 minutes, season with black pepper and red pepper flakes, then add the bell pepper and cook 4 more minutes, add the celery and the carrots and cook until the carrot is tender. Remember to season as you go. Toss all of the ingredients together and serve immediately. If you want to fancy this recipe up add an over easy farm-fresh egg as a garnish.

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