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Ne Mise Pas en Place

Posted by tinako on December 14, 2010

I don't want to wash these.

I was reading an article in the NY Times Magazine today, “Cooking with Dexter: Prep School,” by Pete Wells, describing the author’s shame that he does not “mise en place,” that is, prepare all the ingredients before beginning to cook.  I loved the vivid image he gives of his cooking style.  He gets out all the ingredients, but the pre-chopping doesn’t happen due to time, space, and patience constraints.

So with only half the chopping done, I start to heat the pan.  With that, the train has left the station, and I am swinging by one hand from the back of the caboose.  Ultimately, I get where I’m going, but the trip isn’t pretty to watch.

It never occurred to me to be ashamed that I don’t mise en place.  I figured this was an anachronism from restaurants, where the duty could be assigned to peons working earlier in the day, and from TV shows, where chopping onions takes away from ad time.  Why on earth would I cover my counter, cutting board, or every little dish I own with chopped vegetables so I can have a leisurely stare at cooking onions for seven minutes?

Another thing I had not thought of is that recipes are conventionally written with mise en place in mind.  All the ingredients and how to prep them are given at the beginning.  This is one reason I write my versions of recipes differently.  I bullet the ingredients so we can see at a glance what we need to have on hand, but I spread them out in the directions.  I do this because I hate reading wordy directions, and having a list of measurements at the top and then another list in sentence form below seems redundant and confusing.  I am not a particularly careful recipe reader, and if the writer wants me to put in all but one of the vegetables or herbs, I am going to miss it – I just start going down the list and dumping things in until I get to a different type of ingredient.  That doesn’t happen when the list is broken up like I write it.

I do still put prep instructions on the ingredient line, but that just seems like the most clear, efficient place to put the info.  I expect people to prep on the fly as they come to the item.  When an item needs extra prep, like pre-cooked beans or spuds, I usually put a note at the top.

Another effect of my dislike of reading lengthy instructions while hurriedly hunched over the counter and peering through a spattered cookbook holder is to give the bare necessities: type and size of pan, how much heat, how to know when done.  Or size of the mixing bowl, what to use to stir it, how to know when done.  Just the facts, ma’am.  Here’s an example: Hoppin’ John.

Also I dislike recipes that use more pots/bowls than necessary.  I almost always rework recipes that require mixing the dry, mixing the wet, and then putting them together.  Instead I mix the wet then dump the dry on top, giving the dry a preliminary stir before dipping down to mix it into the wet.  It turns out just fine.

As far as the process not being “pretty to watch, ” I may not have time to make little pleasantries with an imaginary Oprah, but I think there is a beauty in how it all comes together, how every moment is used for some part of the meal, born of 20 years cooking experience.  What could be more satisfying than cake, squash, and potatoes all baking in the oven at once, onions frying while I quickly chop a carrot, or the soup coming to a boil as I pick out jars of herbs?  As long as I have started on time, it all works out.

Anyway, this article made it a little clearer in my mind how my recipe format reflects how I like the information presented to me and how I cook.

The NY Times has not put cheese on these vegetables yet.

DIGRESSION ALERT: I can’t let the article go without lamenting that this weekly feature is never vegan friendly (actually, the whole newspaper isn’t).  I mean, wouldn’t you think that with 52 articles a year on food, once in a while there would be a recipe where the vegetables were served without cheese, just as a variation, or even by accident?  You would be wrong.  A million monkeys have a better chance of writing a vegan recipe than the NY Times Magazine food feature.  All, right, I’m exaggerating a bit, but not much.  Not only do they almost always have animal products, they are almost always loaded with them, and would probably not work well without these crutches.  This week’s recipe has less than usual but includes 1 c whole milk, 1/4 lb. of cheese, and butter.  The week before, the article was about farming internships, that is, fresh vegetables, and here are the ingredients for that recipe:

  • 6 T butter
  • 2 leeks
  • 6 c whole milk
  • 4-6 slices bread
  • 1 lb. squash
  • 1 bunch greens
  • 1 head cauliflower
  • 1/2 lb. cheese
  • heavy cream

Those poor lovely vegetables, given the unrelenting NY Times treatment.

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One Response to “Ne Mise Pas en Place”

  1. […] Magazine has begun their new cooking column on, for me, a very positive note.  Instead of the typical recipe drowned in dairy or featuring some boutique meat, the new writer, Mark Bittman, provides for us […]

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