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The Holy Trinity: Ingredient Trios

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The Holy Trinity: Ingredient Trios

It's an almost universally established belief that three is a magic number. In sales, speech-writing and literary convention there exists a "rule of three" based on the notion that people tend to best remember things presented in groups of (you guessed it) three. In everyday society there also exists the maxim "good things come in threes", which, though issued mainly in relation to superstition and religion, is highly applicable in the culinary world. In point of fact, there exists a holy trinity of cuisine, which alludes to the Holy Trinity of the Christian faith but refers a little less-religiously to ingredient teams that crop up in particular types of cuisine.

A holy trinity in cooking is essentially a flavour base and is typically arrived at by sauteing a combination of any three aromatic vegetables, herbs or spices. Cooking these few base ingredients in butter or oil releases their flavour, which is, in turn, infused into a mixture when other ingredients are added. This technique is most typically used when creating sauces, soups, stews and stir-fries.

Perhaps the most notorious holy trinity referred to in cuisine (particularly by world-renowned Louisiana chef Paul Prudhomme) is the Cajun Holy Trinity. It's an ingredient team that forms the flavour base of almost every Cajun (and Creole) dish imaginable (gumbo, jambalaya, etoufée; to name a few) and consists of chopped bell peppers (usually green), onions and celery. Though the Cajun Holy Trinity varies slightly from region to region (sometimes tomato or garlic are substitutes for celery) and additional spices like cayenne pepper, parsley, thyme and bay leaves can be used in concert with it, it's a prime example of how essential certain ingredients are to a specific type of cuisine.

Onions, carrots and celery form the holy trinity commonly referred to as a mirepoix. Originating in French cuisine (and named after a French town), the mirepoix has become a classic culinary trio serving as flavour base for numerous soup, stew and sauce recipes. To prepare a mirepoix, the aromatic vegetables are finely chopped and combined in a traditional 2:1:1 ratio of onions, carrots and celery. The sweetness of these vegetables is brought out by gently cooking them in butter. Variations might include a white mirepoix, which substitutes either parsnips or the white part of leeks for the carrots; a mirepoix au gras, in which ham and/or pork bellies are added to the original mirepoix; or a matignon, which sees ham and mushrooms added.

French cuisine also sees a couple of other flavour base trinities, such as the very rich cream, butter and eggs trio typically found in French haute cuisine. And the bouquet garni, which is a combination of parsley, thyme and bay leaves either tied together with a string, or placed in a sachet or strainer to be boiled with ingredients for stocks, soups and stews and removed prior to serving (Beef Bourguignon is an example of a dish prepared with the bouquet garni).

Tomato, garlic and basil constitute the holy trinity of Italian cuisine. Typically used to create a marinara sauce, oregano and/or onion are often incorporated into the basic trio. Marinara sauce can be served over pasta, used as a base for more complex sauces or pizza, or added to baked dishes and stir-fries. Another trio in Italian cooking, the soffritto, is essentially a mirepoix: onions, carrots and celery. Rather than sautéing the ingredients in butter, Italian cuisine directs cooking in olive oil. Occasionally other ingredients are added such as garlic, leeks, fennel, oregano and/or other chopped herbs.

Apart from Cajun, French and Italian cuisine, holy trinity flavour bases exist in a variety of cultures around the world. Other cultural examples of holy trinities include Indian (the "wet" trinity: garlic, onion and ginger), Mexican (corn, beans and chilies), Thai (galangal, kaffir lime and lemon grass) and Szechuan (green garlic, ginger and chili peppers).

Taking a step beyond ingredient teams, some more generalized complementary food trios could include the English traditional (and sometimes uttered tongue-in-cheek) "meat and two veg" or "fish, chips and mushy peas". Also, in the past few years the "holy trinity of fowl" has been introduced as Turducken: a questionable combination in which a turkey is stuffed with a duck, which is stuffed with a chicken.

Although three is such a mystical and magic number and though the deceptively religious designation "holy trinity" might suggest otherwise, there is no hard-and-fast rule when it comes to building a flavour base trio. By following some of the classic combinations/techniques discussed above and by adding or subtracting aromatic ingredients, essentially improvising, each one of us can devise a "holy trinity" that works best in your own kitchen.

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