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My Struggle with Mise en Place and Other Sins

(post, Jake Benner)

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This is a confession, of sorts: I don't do mise en place. Have I sinned?

I have watched cooking shows since I was 12 or 13 (for those of you counting, that's like 20 years). In that time I've seen more tiny prep bowls filled with just the right amount of this or that than I can count. TV chefs seem to have everything so together, and then, just when the ingredient is needed in the recipe, BAM! It goes right in, right on time. Genius.

Why can't I do this? Why can't I take the time to prep each of my veggies, spices, herbs, separating them into neat piles of just the right, measured amount? It would be so convenient! So much less flying around the kitchen grabbing what I need as cooking progresses. So much more time to talk and drink. Instead I am never at ease, always having to wash, peel, chop, dice, toss at the last second. Sometimes, I find I didn't even have something I needed--too late!

Is it the amount of time it would take? I do feel rushed after work to get started making dinner right away because I know it will often take an hour to produce. But, I am sure the same result could be achieved within the same amount of time even if I took the time to prep everything before cooking started. I don't think it's the time.

Let's get to the root of my problem. It's because I don't know WHAT I want to prep. I mean, all I have is an idea of what I want to use in the "recipe"...which leads me to my next sin: I hate recipes.

OK, I don't hate them. I read them all the time (I'm even queuing several here on Culinate). I love the ideas they provide--things that I would not have thought to combine or techniques I didn't know. I have many books and cards full of them, but I do not follow recipes. (This is why I am no longer allowed to bake in my house--ingredient amounts seem to be far too touchy in baking for someone like me to interfere). I never make the same thing twice (even if I wanted to) because of this complicated relationship with recipes. 

Before I ask for forgiveness, let me get something off my chest: I think people should cook without following a recipe more often. Part of my disagreement with recipes is that they are little 3 x 5 inch prisons. I encounter people wandering the isles of the grocery store, recipe in hand, looking for "two cups of diced green pepper" more than I should. Folks it's not rocket science--it's food science, and scientists need to experiment. Nothing is learned without experimentation.  

The next time you get hungry for a particular food, look at a few different recipes for it and try to view them as suggestions rather than architectural plans. Don't write anything down and try to make it without reading a recipe (don't forget to taste along the way). This allows you to do a couple of things: put your own spin on it, which might make it taste better to you; and use what you have on hand rather than what the recipe calls for, which will save you a trip to the store and possibly some money. I bet by challenging yourself in this way you might become a better, more confident, more creative cook. If you hit on something really good, write it down and save it.

Now that I have said my piece, let me ask for forgiveness. None of the above is any excuse to avoid taking the time to do good preparation or to keep track of recipes. Recipes are valuable. They are a record of our culinary history--each one represents something that someone ate at least once. If I can't manage to write down my recipes or even follow a recipe someone else wrote, I'm not respecting that history, nor will I ever cook with the consistency of a professional chef. Mise en place is all about the consistency that good preparation can help provide.

As is usually the case, it's our own guilt that drags us to the confessional, and that's why I've come here to spill my offal. So I recently made a promise to myself that I will start keeping better track of the recipes I create and work directly from recipes at least every now-and-then. I've already written down one recipe and stored it on Culinate! More importantly, I will decide what I need before I need it...and maybe I'll even use a measuring cup!