Have you heard of sofrito? It was new to me in 2013 when I saw it mentioned in the first major report from the PREDIMED study, which showed about 30% fewer heart events in people in Spain randomly assigned to follow a Mediterranean (versus low-fat) diet.
What exactly were they eating, I wondered? I saw the expected foods – fruit and vegetables, fish, olive oil, plus a word I didn’t know: sofrito. (See Table 1 here.) Researchers encouraged people in the Mediterranean arm of the study to have it at least twice a week.
According to the PREDIMED authors, “sofrito is a sauce made of tomato and onion, often including garlic and aromatic herbs, and slowly simmered with olive oil.” If you like to cook, I bet you’ve made something like this.
Upon further research I learned that variations on sofrito, which is thought to have originated in Spain, are used in Italy, France, Portugal, the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Philippines. Different regions use different flavours — herbs, spices, and other ingredients, and different names.
Researchers have studied sofrito to see if they can figure out what role it plays in the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. It seems that the gentle cooking of tomatoes in olive oil releases a host of friendly plant compounds — phenols and carotenoids — that appear to interfere with processes involved in atherosclerosis— inflammation and LDL oxidation, actually protecting the delicate insides of coronary arteries.
How cool is that? Bet you didn’t think spaghetti sauce could be heart-healthy. 😉
This recipe is a very basic, quick sofrito, in the Spanish style. It’s endlessly versatile: Leave out the lentils (and broth) and use it with fish or chicken. Toss with pasta. Play with the flavours – oregano, thyme, and basil are delicious too. Puree and use on pizza.
And you can say you’re taking care of your heart with that pizza, thank you very much.
Mediterranean Sofrito and Lentils
- 1 cup barley
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 yellow onion
- 2 bell peppers
- 5 cloves garlic
- 1/2 cup dried green lentils
- 1 1/2 cups vegetable broth reduced-sodium
- 28 oz can diced tomatoes no salt added
- 1 tsp paprika
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes optional
- 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
- Cook the barley in water according to package directions.
- Add the olive oil to a large skillet or pot over medium heat.
- Finely chop the onion and add to the skillet. Turn down the heat if it starts sizzling loudly. The idea is to gently saute the vegetables.
- Finely chop the peppers and add to the skillet as you go, stirring occasionally.
- Mince the garlic and add to the skillet also.
- While the vegetables are cooking, rinse the lentils.
- Once the vegetables are tender (about 5 minutes after adding the garlic), add the lentils to the skillet, then the vegetable broth and canned tomatoes. Turn the heat up to high.
- Add the paprika, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes, if using.
- Once the liquid is bubbling, turn it down to medium-low and simmer until the lentils are soft, about 25 minutes.
- Grate the parmesan cheese if needed.
- Remove from heat. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve over the cooked barley, and top with grated parmesan cheese.