Photo courtesy of the New York Times
Insaporire - a verb derived from the Italian noun sapore, taste. Insaporire is the act of making food tasty, an act we would all be wise to partake in.
Some people have a magic touch with food that involves insaporire. One such person is Marcella Hazan who writes evocatively about ways in which to invoke the best flavour in cooking by using some special tricks and techniqes. In her much loved cookbook Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Marcella describes the building block process of creating flavour in a chapter called "Where Flavor Starts": "Flavor, in Italian dishes, builds up from the bottom. It is not a cover, it is a base." She outlines the three architectural principles that define Italian cooking: Battuto, Soffritto and Insaporire. Battuto is the mixture of cut up aromatics that form the flavour base of many pasta sauces and soups, parsley, onion, carrot or celery finely chopped and sauteed in olive oil, butter or lard. Once the battuto is sautteed until golden and aromatic, it turns into a soffrito. Care is needed here, as sometimes elements are added in sequentially, as first sauteeing the onion until it is translucent and only then adding the garlic, which would burn if allowed to cook entirely with the onion.
According to Marcella, the step that follows soffritto is called insaporire, "bestowing taste". It usually applies to vegetables, as they are often the critical ingredient in the formation of many dishes, pastas, soups, risottos. The technique of insaporire requires that you add vegetables or other principal ingredients (like meat) to the soffrito base and, over very lively heat, briskly saute them until they have become completely coated with the flavour elements of the base, particularly the chopped onion. Failure to execute this crucial step is culinary suicide: "One can often trace the unsatisfying taste, the lameness of dishes purporting to be Italian in style, to the reluctance of some cooks to execute this step thoroughly".
In short, take your time in the kitchen. Not everything you cook will come together in minutes. Some things need nothing but good old time, especially those onions! So much of our culture has been built on saving time, handling tasks as rapidly as possible, but this is not always the recipe for success in the kitchen.
"An Italian vegetable soup is an excellent illustration of the principle of insaporire, the extraction and building up of flavor. Note how the rapini is sautéed at length with onion that has already been cooked to a golden color. Only then is the red pepper added, after the rapini has been given an opportunity to release and concentrate its flavor." - Marcella Hazan
Marcella's Italian Vegetable Soup from Saveur magazine
1 1/2–2 lbs. potatoes; 1 bunch of rapini, about 1 pound; Fine sea salt to taste; 1 large meaty red bell pepper or 2 smaller ones; 1 tbsp. vegetable oil; 3 tbsp. butter; 2/3 cup chopped onion; freshly ground black pepper; 2–4 cups meat broth, or a beef bouillon cube dissolved in 4 cups of water, or 1 can beef broth diluted with 3 parts water.
If you are baking the potatoes, turn on the oven to 450°. Wash the potatoes in cold running water, pierce them here and there, and put them into the preheated oven. They are done when the tines of a fork enter them easily, about 50 minutes to 1 hour, depending on their size. As soon as they are cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh, mash it through a potato ricer, and set it aside until you are ready to add it to the soup. If you are boiling the potatoes, bring a pot of water to a boil. Wash the potatoes in cold running water, drop them into the pot, and cook at a steady, moderate boil. They are done when they can be easily pierced with a fork, about 30 minutes or more, depending on the size and youth of the potatoes. Drain and, as soon as you are able to handle them, pull off the peels and mash the flesh through a potato ricer. Set aside until you are ready to add them to the soup.
Cut off the tops of the rapini and put them away for another use. Peel off the tough dark green rind that surrounds the stems. Wash the rapini in cold water. Bring a pan of salted water to a boil, add the stems, and cook them until tender. Drain and cut into pieces about 2" long.
Cut the red pepper lengthwise along its creases, remove the stem, seeds, and pithy core, then skin with a swivel-blade vegetable peeler. Then cut it into narrow strips about 2" long.
Put the oil, butter, and chopped onion into a saucepan, turn on the heat to medium-high, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion becomes pale gold. Put in the rapini, turn once or twice to coat well, and cook for about 10 minutes. Add the pepper strips and cook for 8-10 minutes, stirring from time to time.
Add the potatoes to the pan. Stir well, adding salt and several grindings of black pepper. Pour enough meat broth into the pan to ahieve the consistency you desire. I like it as loose as thin cream. Cook at a steady, slow simmer for 30-40 minutes. Taste and correct for salt.
Insaporire happens when you allow the flavour residing naturally in vegetables to emerge through careful attention to cooking them slowly and at the right temperature. You do need some brisk heat to coax vegetables to release their liquid and carmelize their sugars. Absence of this heat leaves vegetables flat or "boiled". Once your vegetables take on a deep caramel colour and have become insaporito, you can continue cooking your soup, sauce or risotto at medium or even low heat, depending on your recipe. You cannot make up for lack of insaporire later on by throwing in more spices or salt. It is precisely the slow release of flavour that will reward you later with a dish whose deep flavours intermingle and dance.
More wisdom from the master. . . . . .