Thursday, July 29, 2010

Hands On - Mise en Place

 If you have ever made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you have probably applied the concept of mise en place (meez ahn plahss).  Get the jar of peanut butter and the jar of jelly.  Put them on the counter.  Set out a knife for the peanut butter and a spoon long enough to reach down into the jelly jar.  Put two pieces of bread on a plate.  There.  Now you are ready to make the sandwich. 

A place for everything and everything in its place.  That is mise en place.  It is a French phrase which literally means "put in place."  If you aspire to be a successful, efficient and calm cook then it would be a good idea to develop the mise en place habit.  

Living the mise en place way is a good idea in general.  In these days of instant everything,  the ability to prepare and to think ahead is a vanishing yet still valuable skill.  If you are in a mise en place state of mind, you will be organized.  You will be able to focus on and enjoy the work at hand.  You will have anticipated your tasks and set priorities.  You will have the peace of mind of knowing that you are ready to turn ideas into reality when it is implementation time.  As writer Joshua Longley put it at, "Mise en place makes cooking more of a Zen experience than a drive-through rush hour." 

I apply mise en place in several ways in my kitchen.   In addition to using it when I prepare meals,  I use it to help me organize my storage system.  I group ingredients that almost always are used together.  In my baking corner I keep white and whole wheat flour, white and brown sugar, salt, baking powder, vanilla, baking soda, cornmeal, oil and oatmeal.  This is just common sense.  It is personal.   If you cook Thai all the time, then why not group ingredients somewhere in your kitchen so they are handy when you need them?  If it means you need to get rid of a few gadgets you never use to make room, then do it.

In my oil and vinegar corner I keep - you guessed it - oils and vinegars.  Plus some soy sauce and cooking wine.  I have a drawer where I keep most supplies I need for canning.  And I have most of my spices and salt and pepper all together right by the stove top - and just next to the oil and vinegar department.

I really notice the difference when I jump right in and start cooking something versus taking the time to prep and organize.  (I have not yet achieved my mise en place black belt.  I still have some bad habits.)  It is a rhythm and flow thing.  There is something about having all the ingredients ready ahead of time that improves the cooking process as well as the outcome.  For one thing, you feel more in control.  And who doesn't like that - even if you are not a control freak it feels good to know you have the situation in hand.   Many cooks - even experienced ones - often feel unsure or harried.  Regular application of the mise en place habit will help give you confidence.  And help you relax.

So here are some basic mise en place steps
1.  Start with a reasonably clean kitchen.  Empty the dishwasher if it is full.  Wipe off the counters.  Make sure you have a cleared work space. 

2.  If you are working with a recipe, read it from beginning to end.

3.  Inventory your equipment - do you have what you need?  Appliances, tools,  pot or pan, serving pieces?  Will you need to drain something?  Get out the colander.  Will you need to whip something?  Get out the mixer or whisk now.  Need a 9 x 9 baking pan?  Dig it out and grease it if that is required.

4.  Set out all the ingredients you will need.  Now is the time to discover that you are out of brown sugar - not ten minutes from now when you have something simmering on the stove and the missing sugar creates a crisis.  Prep and measure as needed.  Peel, chop, dice, grate, beat.  If you are going to need chopped carrots, get them peeled and chopped and put them in a bowl.  Same with onions.  If they are going to be cooked together, you can put them in the same bowl.  I have several small, medium and large stainless bowls that are light weight, unbreakable and easy to clean.  I use them constantly.  Also little glass custard cups.

5.  Clean up as you go.  This is a huge timesaver in the long run.  Always have a kitchen towel or two at hand, as well as a wiping up cloth (aka dish rag but I hate the way that sounds.)

6.  Think about what you are doing.  Is there a way you can achieve some economy in motion or time?  With experience, you will discover ways to be more organized or save steps. 

This morning for breakfast we are having potatoes and kale fried with a little salt pork, olive oil and shallots.  Plus eggs cooked right there on top of the potatoes.  And broiled tomatoes.  This is what the mise on place looked like about 30 minutes ago. (Note the presence of vegetables.  We eat vegetables for breakfast all the time.)

This is what the potatoes look like in the pan - I will cover it for a while to help cook the eggs.

Anthony Bourdain, famed chef and writer and cable TV star, says in his first book - Kitchen Confidential -  that mise en place is the religion of all good line cooks.  He tells a story of a chef who would spot a cook falling behind in his work:

He’d press his palm down on the cutting board, which was littered with peppercorns, spattered sauce, bits of parsley, bread crumbs and the usual flotsam and jetsam that accumulates quickly on a station if not constantly wiped away with a moist side towel. “You see this?” he’d inquire, raising his palm so that the cook could see the bits of dirt and scraps sticking to his chef’s palm. “That’s what the inside of your head looks like now.” — Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential

Bourdain is right.  It is a head thing.   Look at mise en place as good brain exercise.  Mental discipline. I can't promise it will prevent Alzheimer's but it sure won't hurt.  

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