When I was first learning to cook, I was always running around the kitchen like a crazy person, trying to chop something while another ingredient burned on the stove. And as I began making more complicated dishes, particularly meatless dishes containing delicate veggies and spices that did not tolerate burning well, this kitchen havoc only increased. Until I learned the secret: mise en place.
Mise en place is a fancy Frenchified term for getting all of your stuff ready before you cook. It means, literally, "put in place", and if you've ever watched Top Chef, you're probably familiar with the mise en place relay, in which the cheftestants are asked to do very basic cooking tasks, such as chopping a bunch of onions or peeling and coring a pile of apples. Why, you might wonder, are they doing this? Because preparing to cook, I've learned, is as important as actually cooking, and a good chef understands mise en place.
This is my mise en place for curried eggplant and potato, which I learned from @kaimoana, an internet pal and one of our readers! Those potatoes have been pre-cooked ... it pays to read your recipe ahead of time.
If you're cooking meat, mise en place can sometimes be overlooked. You can chop the veggies while the chicken roasts, or while the hamburgers grill. However, if you're making a delicious veggie dish filled with a variety of veggies, spices, and alternative proteins, all of these things need to be prepared and there's usually not time to do it in the middle of cooking, since veggies tend to cook much more quickly than meat (which is not to say that mise en place isn't useful when cooking with meat, as anyone who's dried out a beautiful piece of fish or chicken knows).
If you'd like to bring the concept of mise en place into your kitchen, here are a few key ideas:
- Make sure your kitchen is prepared, as I discussed last week. If your recipe has a lot of ingredients, you will probably want a collection of small containers. I have a bunch of prep bowls, but you don't need anything fancy. Regular bowls, mugs, or plates work just fine. You'll also need measuring cups and spoons, and knives.
- Read through your recipe. The big idea behind mise en place is that when you're actually cooking, you'll be able to simply toss things into your pan and cook away. Pay attention: how are the ingredients grouped together? Does anything need to be pre-mixed or pre-cooked? How does the recipe ask you to slice, dice, or julienne?
- Do your research. If the recipe asks me to do something and I'm not sure what it means, I turn to one of my basic cookbooks or the internet. I'm not ashamed that a week ago I googled "how to cook eggplant" because I wasn't sure whether to leave the skins on or not (I did.) Make sure you understand all of the instructions ahead of time. This can be particularly important if you're working with some non-traditional grains. Don't assume that since you can make rice you know how to cook wheat berries or quinoa.
- Chop all your veg, measure all your ingredients. For each step in the recipe, put all of the ingredients together. For example, if the recipe says: Add onion, chili peppers, and garlic, put all of these things into the same bowl. You can even arrange your items in the order that you're going to use them if you're particularly organized (or neurotic).
- Get to cooking! Once you're mise en placed, you'll find that cooking is much easier and low-key. Grab a glass of wine, chat with your family or friends.
Meatless cooking is wonderful in many ways, not only because it brings variety to your palate, health to your life, and color to your plate. According to the United Nations, it's one of the biggest steps you can take toward a more sustainable lifestyle. Starting with Meatless Mondays might just lead to Sustainable Saturdays and Turkeyless Tuesdays, but even if it doesn't make you want to become a vegetarian, it impacts all of our lives in positive ways.