Holy trinity, Batman! I first heard the term ‘’holy trinity” used in relation to food by Rachael Ray while she was chopping a trio of vegetables consisting of carrot, celery, and onion. The three veggies formed the flavor base for the dish she was preparing. I had often seen my mother perform the same ritual, but she never used the terms flavor base or holy trinity. Mom’s holy trinity formed the basis for her homemade soups and stews that comforted us on cold, Northeastern winter nights.
Sometime afterward, I took a cooking class at the New Orleans School of Cooking where the instructor prepared her holy trinity of onion, celery, and green pepper. Green pepper? Where were the carrots? My confusion initiated an interesting investigation into the origins of the holy trinity in regional cooking.
Both my mom, and Rachael Ray as she describes her background, were influenced by Italian cooking, from which the carrot-celery-onion version of the holy trinity is derived. The veggie combo is called “buttato” in Italian, and after it is cooked in butter and olive oil it becomes a “soffritto” (not to be confused with the Spanish sofrito).
In French cooking, the same trio of vegetables is called mirepoix and is the basis for coq au vin and lamb stew. The variation that we encountered in New Orleans was a Cajun version that used onion, celery, and green bell pepper to form the flavor base for jambalaya.
Cuisines from around the world have their own unique foundations generally referred to as “humble beginnings”. The simple vegetables that form the base tend to disappear behind the star of the dish such as beef, chicken, or seafood. In Spanish dishes, the vegetable foundation called sofrito consists of onion, garlic, and tomatoes. In German cuisine, the suppengrün, literally “soup green” in English, uses carrot, leek, and celeriac, or celery root. These cold climate roots and vegetable are often sold in a bundle with other vegetables and herbs, like onion, parsley, and thyme, with which to make soup.
Sometimes the flavor base is expanded beyond three common vegetables to include aromatics. Western cooking may add bay leaf, thyme, parsley, and peppercorns whereas Asian cooking may include ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, or cumin. And every cuisine is enhanced using a bulbous plant that has been consumed by humans for thousands of years, the ubiquitous garlic. These humble beginnings are the root of a dish’s cultural identity.
The aspect of layered flavors is what takes a dish from a plain drab chicken breast to chicken marsala, stir fry, or curry. The same nuances are what make wine (and people) more interesting and palatable. I often find myself describing a glass of happy hour wine (and some people I meet) as one-dimensional. When a wine really shines, those layers of aromas and flavors pique my interest from the time I pour the wine into a glass until the bottle is empty. The same can be said for a meticulously crafted meal that starts with humble beginnings and culminates in bringing the joy of new discovery with every mouthful.