When it comes to traditional Spanish-style cuisine, whether it be soup, beans, chicken, shrimp or anything else bolstered by a zesty sauce, it is very likely that what gives these dishes their distinctive flavor and aroma is sofrito, a blend of herbs, spices and vegetables.
For many Puerto Rican, Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American cooks in Connecticut and parts of Massachusetts, the prime source of this kitchen staple is Sofrito Ponce, a family business based in New Haven. Their sofrito is based on the recipe that Luis Rodriguez Sr. used in mixing fresh batches of this versatile cooking base for sale at the grocery store that he started in a Hispanic neighborhood after he arrived from Puerto Rico in 1959.
Rafael Diaz, a city firefighter, recalls that as a child it was the Rodriguez store, which was named Ponce Market after the owner’s hometown, where he and other youngsters went for candy and ice cream while their mothers and grandmothers stocked up on ethnic specialties like sofrito.
About 30 years ago, the Rodriguez family expanded their sofrito production beyond New Haven and introduced Sofrito Ponce, which is based on their family recipe.
Today, Sofrito Ponce is distributed throughout Connecticut to major supermarkets such as Stop & Shop and ShopRite and “ma and pa” stores and to some stores in Massachusetts, said Luis Lou” Rodriguez Jr., who took over management of the business after his father retired and who doubles as a high school soccer coach.
Sofrito Ponce is typically found in the produce section of supermarkets, sharing cooler space with a variety of salsas, and comes in one-pound containers that feature a depiction of the iconic Parque de Bombas, the historic firehouse, now a museum, that is as emblematic of Ponce as the El Morro fortification is for San Juan. The package also proclaims this food enhancer as the “El Conquistador de la Cocina,” the conqueror of the kitchen.
Sofrito comes in a variety of forms, some frozen or in bottles, such as the nationally distributed Goya brand which is labeled recaito, which includes tomatoes. At El Mercado, the Latino food court and market in the heart of Hartford’s Latino community, a variety of sofritos are sold. In addition to Sofrito Ponce, these Spanish cooking staples include Sofrito Puerto Rico, El Campesina Sofrito and Sofrito El Coqui, which is made in Puerto Rico and named for a small frog found on the island.
For many Hispanic cooks, making sofrito from scratch is still the way to go, but there is still a demand for pre-mixed version of this must-have ingredient for their ethnic cuisine. So much so, that those who have moved out of Connecticut to areas where a product such as Sofrito Ponce is not readily available will make sure that when they visit their former hometowns they drop into a neighborhood market for a fresh container or two of fresh sofrito before they head home.
What distinguishes Sofrito Ponce, said Lou Rodriguez, is the use of “high quality ingredients” and that it is a very consistent product. “We use fresh produce straight from local farms,” he said. Moreover, he noted, Sofrito Ponce, “sells faster and is not on the shelf long.”
It is a “great product,” according to the produce manager in a Stop and Shop in central Connecticut, one of the many supermarkets that now stock Sofrito Ponce and other Hispanic food products.
On a weekly basis, the demand for this raw cooking base may vary, Rodriguez said, but the upcoming holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, are especially busy for the Sofrito plant, which is located at the edge of the Hill neighborhood in southwest New Haven.
The Rodriguez family includes recipes for stuffed peppers and arroz con pollo (rice and chicken) on their website, www.sofritoponce.com, that feature their Spanish cooking staple.
Going forward, the business is looking into other food items it might produce, but nothing is definite yet, said Lou Rodriguez.
Meanwhile, in addition to sofrito, soccer is a mainstay of the Rodriquez family. Luis Jr. played at Eastern Connecticut State College in the 1980s and now coaches the team at Sheehan High School in Wallingford. His son, Joel, played soccer at Sheehan, went on to to play at the University of New Haven and was a member of the Puerto Rican National Team.
Sofrito and soccer, for the Rodriquez family, like for that of many Latinos, are staples.