Mis-en-Place for the New Year

Thanks to everyone for your comments and encouragement this year. Happy 2008 to all!

Here at The Not-So-Newly-But-Overly-Well-Feds we have committed ourselves to a new plan for 2008. We will learn how to be a better cook, and we will take you along with us.

“But you already know how to cook,” you say. “Is Fred going to try something besides exploding eggs in your pots and welding Wonder bread packages to the stovetop?”

Yes, I can cook, and no, Fred is not getting anywhere near my kitch . . . I mean, the kitchen if I can help it. But I know squat about the technical side–the part where you measure things, and know maybe half of the terms a professional chef might use, and can explain why you shouldn’t use a cast-iron skillet for a tomato sauce.

My plan was spurred, or inspired, by a post on Michael Ruhlman’s blog by Bob del Grosso. I quote here because the post was part of an excruciatingly long thread, but here’s the link. Explaining why home cooks get inconsistent results, he writes:

“One day the cook leaves a roast out on the countertop for an hour or so before cooking while on another day he pulls it from the fridge and slams it right into to oven. The pre-warmed roast cooked to 125-130, carried over to 140 is evenly rare while the other roast shows a ring of well done on the outside and lens of rare in the middle.

One day he lets the roast rest in front an open window and finds that it only carries over to 130 and on another day he shoves it into a corner and it carries to 150.

Point is that it is not good enough to only focus on the quality of ingredients or the steps that one follows while constructing a recipe. It’s also important to focus on the totality of the cooking (And eating!) environment and to be aware of things like internal and surface temperatures of foods prior to, during and following cooking.

I may be stating the obvious here, and I certainly mean no condescension, but when you take cooking seriously, it gets very very interesting and very very challenging.”

Well, my goal is make my cooking more interesting and challenging this year, and to learn things, and to record it here.

Let’s start with the towel on the shoulder from my last post. I learned (far too recently to tell you when without embarrassment) that’s part of my “mis-en-place,” which is simply the practice of setting out everything you need before you begin preparing a meal. It’s something I’ve known and ignored since childhood. It’s possible the technique was developed by August Escoffier (1846-1935), who pioneered the “brigade” style of French cooking, but I bet my great-great-grandmother was doing the same thing in Appalachia around the same time.

Here is my mother’s advice on mis-en-place. I was going to cite some other sources, but after consulting them I was reminded, once again, that my mother is always right.

First, about your kitchen setup:

You will be a better person and a happier cook if you keep your kitchen organized–not perfect, or even tidy, but organized. That is, put everything back in exactly the same place every time, and make sure most frequently used items are handy. Example: Pots and pans should be within easy reach of the stove, with those you use daily towards the front and those used less often in the back. All those who desire to “help” in the kitchen should have the system explained to them, or they should buy you a label maker for your birthday.

Now, for the actual cooking:

1) If you’re using a recipe, read through the entire recipe first. If not, decide what you’re going to make and what ingredients you’ll use. Check to make sure you have all the ingredients and equipment you need. I only sorta kinda do this, which certainly makes my cooking exciting and interesting, especially when I set out to make, say, an omelette and discover the expiration date on the carton of eggs was two months ago. But things will be different now. Really.

2) Put a towel on your shoulder for cleaning up accidents and make sure you have cleaning items (sponges, paper towels, etc.) close by. (Okay, what the pros say is actually slightly different. In Kitchen Confidential Anthony Bourdain writes that he merely squirreled away his favorite towels at the beginning of every shift. But you get the idea–be prepared to clean up after yourself.)

3) Determine the equipment you need–measuring spoons, skillet, bowls, pots, cups. Set it out. If you’re short on countertop space, you don’t have to pull everything out–just check to make sure it’s clean and exactly where it should be.

4) Prepare as many items as possible before you actually assemble the dish: chop vegetables, grate cheese, measure liquids, etc. Clean up your mess as you go. Place prepared items in bowls or plates and set aside.

5) Pre-heat oven and move racks as needed. Check the recipe again, make sure everything is in place, and get going . . . .

This may sound intimidating, but it’s a heck of a lot better than setting out to make pecan pie on Christmas Day, then spending over an hour looking for an open convenience store that sold flour, only to discover the two bags of pecans you had in the freezer were actually 1) over two years old and 2) walnuts.**

** Okay, I did find a bag of pecans underneath some ancient, frozen wheat germ. . . . see what I mean by “organized”?