I’d like to start a series on cooking techniques. I hope to cover information that is helpful for the home cook. How do you choose a certain knife to cut bread, versus fruit or cheese? Which pan is best to cook fish in, or an egg, or pot roast? Why would you put meatballs back in the fridge before cooking? These will be bite-size lessons that will help you refine your skills and be more confident in the kitchen.
The first topic I would like to cover is called “mise en place”. My favorite college professor and the one who taught my cooking classes Dr. Arlene Grant-Holcomb (she also joined in at my graduation party and wedding celebration – talk about an incredible teacher!) would always instruct that a good recipe always starts with mise en place. So what does it mean? It literally means “set in place”. It’s exactly what you see done on all the popular cooking shows where the ingredients and tools are all set out and ready to go. You need onions diced for the recipe? They are diced ahead of time! You need two tablespoons of chili powder, measure it first! The point is to set it all out and then when you are reading through the recipe and doing each step in order, you always have that next ingredient at the ready.
One of my favorite things about Mise en Place is pretending I am a celebraty chef, and say things like "now we will just pour in two cups chicken broth" (then I pour in the two cups of premeasure chicken broth) and I FEEL LIKE A STAR! You may be thinking I'm crazy, but try it, I know it'll put a smile on your face. Even if the dog is the only audience member in the room, he will enjoy the lesson.
As you grow and develop in your cooking skills a strict mise en place may not be as necessary because you will know that you can measure spices as your onions brown, or you will anticipate needing to put an ingredient in the oven to roast for 20 minutes which will allow ample time to measure something else, however for a less experienced cook, or one who is not as confident, setting all the items in order is a crucial first step for any dish. Many times you can even do it HOURS ahead of time or even in the morning or night before to save yourself time when you actually prepare the dish. You’ll just need to be mindful of safe storing practices. Here are some simple tips I use:
COMBINE WHERE POSSIBLE
If all the spices are added at the same time in a recipe, just combine them all in one bowl as you measure.
If you add carrots, onion and celery to a recipe at the same time (or any mixture of veggies) just throw them all in the same bowl.
PEEL, CUT, CHOP, DICE, MINCE
Rinse your fresh produce, and do whatever cutting needs to take place before the recipe.
Measure all dry ingredients, spices, etc.
Measure any liquids, oils, butters, you need.
Look at the recipe and organize your ingredients based on where in the kitchen you will use them or when in the recipe you will use them. For instance if you are prepping chili – the spices should go near the pot.
BLANCHE AHEAD OF TIME
If the recipe calls of vegetables or fruit that is already slightly cooked, make sure this is done by the time you begin the recipe, nothing will slow your groove more than having to stop an entire process to go boil and blanche some broccoli.
Preparation is key to cooking a great recipe, selecting meals for the week and getting the most bang out of your buck at the grocery store. Mise en place can make home cooking more enjoyable as you are actually preparing the dishes and way more enjoyable to eat. It can save a dish that might have been burned while you were prepping other materials, and instead turn it into the most fabulous feast!
Do you mise en place? Take a photo and post it to my facebook wall.
Caitlin Johnson is a dietitian, wife, lover of ice cream, chef wannabe, California-girl, Christian, liver eating, "food-avore."
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