If you follow the expert on Catalan cuisine, Colman Andrews, softening sweet, finely chopped onions in plenty of olive oil very slowly until they turn beyond yellow, beyond golden, beyond hazelnut brown, and then adding tomatoes, is the usual start of making dinner. This is how to make sofregit, the source of that warm appetizing smell that wafts round a Catalan house and draws people into the kitchen, the essential flavour that brings all the other ingredients together.
To the mixture of onions and tomatoes you can add peppers, aubergines, mushrooms or lardons. Reduce the mixture down, to make what is elegantly described as a confiture, a jam. There can be no such thing as a wet sofregit.
However, if you watch a Catalan chef making a sofregit, he just chops up onions, peppers and aubergines, sticks them in a blackened pan, adds grated tomatoes, garlic, plenty of olive oil and seasoning and cooks everything together for a while, not particularly gently, until it turns into a rich sauce – adding a little water from time to time if it gets too dry.
Either method works well, but I am a slow cook myself and I think the long method gives a deeper flavour.
You are now ready to add flavourings and your main ingredient. Sofregit can be used to cook crabs, eels and all sorts of fish and shellfish, rabbit, rice, pasta, artichokes, snails, meat dishes – almost anything whatever that you like the look of in the market today, although obviously not all at once! It gives a good intensity to your food, once you have acquired a feel for the approach, as it eliminates wateriness; the trick is to melt your ingredients together with the juicy vegetables, made sweet and succulent by onions, olive oil and long cooking.
Think about adding wild mushrooms, dried mushrooms, peppers, carrots, potatoes, lardons, pig’s feet and ears, ham bones, sausage meat, olives, pine nuts, hazelnuts and almonds, capers and gherkins, or anchovies.
Garlic is not essential, only the sweet onions are, saffron is sometimes added – and herbs – wild fennel, earthy thyme from the garrigue, parsley, basil – and spices – cinnamon and, surprisingly, star anise.
Liquids can include wine, sweet Muscat wine, vinegar, sherry, cognac, water and stock.