So if you are a food person like me, you get a craving for some food you want to eat, or know a new recipe you want to try, and you start looking forward to it. You are psyched to finally eat it or cook it. Maybe you even have people coming over. You start preparing the dish and suddenly you realize you were supposed to soak something overnight, or precook an ingredient, or cook and cool something. WTH? Cashews in water overnight? Rice cooked and cooled? It is so disappointing when this happens. You may not actually be able to make your dish. So much for that craving! Hopefully it's not for a dinner party and now you don't have a dish! There are two strategies I am here to share that will hopefully keep this from happening.
The first tip comes from the homework we are required to do for my school, modified slightly. I would suggest working through this process as you are planning for the dish, getting your grocery list together. It seems pretty obvious but you need to fully read through the recipe including the ingredients and all the instructions. As you do, make note of 4 things:
- Review all required ingredients. Do you have them all? Seems like a no-brainer but one Christmas Day I was making a rice salad and realized too late I was out of cumin. No way to run get some so I did without but it was not nearly as good.
- What work needs to be done before you begin cooking? This includes pre-cooking or soaking ingredients, toasting nuts, chopping vegetables, heating, cooling or bringing ingredients to room temperature. You don't want to start cooking and be surprised by something you should have already done. The classic mistake is forgetting to thaw your Thanksgiving turkey! One Easter day I started to prepare a dessert and realized I should have brought the cream cheese to room temperature. I tried to make it work with it cold but no luck. We were short on time, and I had to run to Kroger early in the morning to buy more. I went in my pjs with a jacket - no one even noticed! :)
- What equipment do you need, both to prepare the dish and to serve it? Do you need a double boiler? High speed blender? Microplace? Food mill or food processor? Be sure you have what you need or have an adequate substitute. Also, do you need anything to serve it? A ladle? Fondue pot? While you're evaluating equipment, think about how you want to serve the food. Family style on a serving plate? Do you have a big enough bowl? Individually plated? Do you want to serve it with something else? Need a sauce? Bread? Rice? If you are transporting it, how are you going to get it there?
- How long will it take, start to finish? If you need to serve the dish at 7:30 pm what time do you need to start cooking? Don't you hate going to a dinner party and the food isn't ready until 2 hours after you arrive because the hostess didn't plan well? A dish may take a lot longer than you thought, especially if you need to pre-cook items, toast nuts, chop lots of vegetables.
If you are making a whole meal, get out all your recipes and go through the 4 steps with each one. Make a game plan based on how long each dish takes to prepare, and plan for all the dishes so they finish at the same time. (This is the hardest part of cooking!) Evaluating these four things in advance will help ensure success!
The second tip is a traditional culinary process found in every professional kitchen: mis en place. This originated with French cooking and means "everything in its place." This practice is to assemble everything you need, ingredients and equipment, before you begin cooking. Having everything at your finger tips, ready to use, makes for continuous flow and ease in your cooking. When everything is prepared and ready, you aren't stopping and running to the pantry to get something, then stop and chop, then run to the fridge that's out in the garage, then....you get the picture. If you ever watch cooking shows on television, you will see mis en place in action. Little bowls or piles of all the ingredients, prepped and ready to use. This isn't just for tv but for all chefs. That said, (if you have done your recipe review and know you have all your ingredients), there may be one step of your recipe that takes a long time of hands-off cooking (like cooking rice) that you can go ahead and get started and then assemble the rest of your mis en place while it cooks. This will make the most efficient use of your time.
There is a great little short piece on NPR about mis en place. You can listen to it here. As it says, watch out, it works so well you might find it seeping over into the rest of your life!
These two tips seem simple and completely obvious but may be the difference between a successful dish and a failure. If you are well prepared, you can relax and enjoy the cooking process. This ease will show up in your food. It is hard to make a great meal when you are stressed out and frantically rushing about the kitchen. Good planning and neat mis en place makes for good food!
Note: My comments are STILL broken. Squarespace tells me their engineers are working on it, whatever that means. I definitely hope it will be fixed soon. In the meantime I would still love to hear from you. You can find me on facebook here, talk to me there!