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~ Culinary Rule #1: Mise en Place -- Put it into Place ~

IMG_1820The family cook, whether he/she cooks because they have to, because they love to, or both, realizes the time, energy and organization required to produce even a simple family meal.  On those special occasions or holidays, when the fare must be increased to include a dozen or more added guests, one can only wonder how a professional chef, or a restaurant, manages to produce quality meals and many menu items for so many people, and, more than once a day.

The family cook relies mostly on following a specific recipe or cooking what they have commited to memory, and, the professional chef relies mostly on basic procedures and techniques that allow them the flexibility to read a recipe and adjust it to voluminous demands.  Family cooks, who have learned to apply some of these procedures and techniques to home cooking, are: great family cooks.  Professisonal chefs, who have added knowledge of ethnic cuisine, culture and family heritage to their learned skills are:  great professisonal chefs.  How do they do it?

The French have a fancy phrase for it:  Mise en place.

6a0120a8551282970b01539210babe970b-320wiTo novice cooks, mise en place (meez-ahn-plahs) might sound like another fancy French term guaranteed to intimidate you, and, perhaps it should.  Here's why: behind every successful cook there is an organized kitchen.  

PICT0005Mise en place means, "a place for everything and everything in its place".  When I teach a cooking class, it starts and ends with mise en place: Start the day with everything in its place, cook all day with everything in its place, and end the day with everything in its place. If that sounds militaristic, it is, but, once you delve into the mindset behind the words, it really is a kind, gentle, easy way to keep a kitchen running like a well-oiled machine.

Cook w/confidence, common sense, a clear head, &, most importantly, keep the kitchen clean throughout the process.

6a0120a8551282970b017ee89e7ebc970dIf you are the family cook, panic should not set in at the thought of the words "procedures and techniques".  There is no need to enroll in an expensive cooking school or start mastering the French language.  Julia Child did, then demonstrated and taught us all that we didn't have to.  She set high standards for us in her kitchen while making it all look fun and easy.

To become a great family cook, confidence, common sense and a clear head are really the only requirements, unless you simply refuse to read and follow a well-written recipe, and that, I cannot help you with.  Here is a bit of my confident, logical, clear-headed Julia-esque advice:

Part One:  The Recipe

Culinary Q & A #2The recipe should be looked upon as your guideline or road map for the dish you are preparing.  It is not etched in stone.  Most recipes will assume that you know a little about cooking and are familiar with basic terminology.  Read the recipe through to become familiar with whether you will be boiling, baking, frying, etc.  Once you've established in your mind, and are comfortable with the process(es) required, be prepared to evaluate, criticize and change the recipe to suit your own Another Day at the Office #2needs and taste.  Recognize that no two kitchens are alike.  Your stove regulates heat differently, your pots and pans distribute that heat differently, and even the temperature in your house is different from mine (and that of everyone else that you know).  So, while precise instructions in a recipe are very helpful, it is impossible for them to be exact.  For example:  

407515_2691616649700_1276632630_n"Saute chicken until golden brown on both sides and cooked through, turning only once, about 6-8 minutes per side" are well-written instructions.  What takes me 5 minutes on a gas stove can take someone else up to 8 minutes on an electric stove.

Additionally, specific serving instructions like "serve immediately", "let rest" and "allow to return to room temperature", are supplied for very good reason and note should always be made of them.  A dish can quickly lose its charm if served too hot, too cold or before its time.

Part Two:  The Measurement

PICT0005The measurement, while I'm mentioning this second along the road to becoming a great family cook, is probably the most important kitchen basic.  That being said, family cooks for centuries have been seemingly satisfied with innacurate methods for measuring, and, have the mediocre results to prove it.  Most recipes written for the family cook (this blog not included) have been lowered to the "one cup of this", "two whole pieces of that" standard of measure.  The industrial age of manufactured goods has us "spoiled", expecting, even demanding, products that all look and weigh the same.  Uniformity is not something food is known for.   IMG_9127

Nature sees to it that no two carrots are the same size or weight, no two apples are of the same ripeness when picked, no two chickens are exactly alike, nor would we want them to be.  No matter how hard you try, the first cup of carrots that you chop will not weigh the same as the second, third, and so on. Three pounds of apples are simply not the same as three pounds of peeled apples.  No two chickens will roast in exactly the same amount of time, etc., etc., etc.  

The moment you realize that a good-quality kitchen scale is one of the most important small appliances you will ever invest in, you are well on your way to becoming a great family cook.

Part Three:  The Organization

PICT2689The organization does not come naturally to all people, but it is necessary for survival in the kitchen.  No matter how large or small your kitchen, staying organized is huge.  Find a place for everything, keep everything in its place, and return it to its place the moment you are done using it. Wasting time rumaging around looking for a misplaced vegetable peeler is not only inefficient, it is no ones idea of a good time.  

Even the simplest of recipes require advance thought and planning.

 Without being fanatical, here are a few of my tips:

PICT0003 6a0120a8551282970b01675eb51084970b-320wi1)  Make sure you have all hardware and ingredients necessary to the recipe preparation and assemble them on a work surface. Grease and flour pans, wash and cut vegetables, trim meat and poultry.  In other words: prep as much as you can and as far in advance as you can.

IMG_3306 IMG_40462)  Turn three jobs into one: consolidate work.  If you need chopped parsley and minced garlic for more than one recipe, do it all at the same time.  Food storage bags are a great vessel for storing prepped ingredients.  They take up less space in the refrigerator, and, there are no containers to wash.

PICT00213)  Determine exactly how far you can take each recipe just short of its final preparation and do it.  What seems like one small unfinished task, left to the end, can turn into one giant problem if there are enough of them left undone.  One additional unforseen problem, coupled with a few unfinished tasks is called:  a crisis.

IMG_60434)  Clean up as you work.  Before you begin to cook anything, run all of the hardware you used through the dishwasher or wash it by hand. Wipe off work surfaces and empty trash cans.  Start clean, cook clean, and end clean.  No one respects a messy cook in a dirty kitchen.  No one wants to eat food prepared by a messy cook in a dirty kitchen. 

Part Four:  The Presentation

IMG_2081 IMG_2111The presentation of the finished product, if ignored, will be the demise of a wonderful recipe or even an entire meal.  No matter how properly prepared, no matter if it is an extravagant, gourmet meal or a simple, straightforward sandwich, if it is served haphazardly on a dish, thoughtlessly placed next to 6a0120a8551282970b0134892d3b28970c-800wiunflattering foods of similar color and texture, with spilled sauce neglectfully unwiped from the rim of the plate, you'll win no culinary awards.  Cooking is one field of expertise where neatness does count.  Cut food carefully, as instructed, and, serve it at the proper temperature.  When applicable, use attractive, colorful, edible garnishes (see photo below):


6a0120a8551282970b0162fc7897c3970d-800wiConfidence, common sense and a clear head will carry you far in the kitchen. Read and evaluate your recipe. Measure and weigh your ingredients.  Organize your work area and processes.  Present your food as neatly and beautifully as possible.  Above all, don't be afraid to make judgement calls.  Do what works for you, makes you comfortable and do it well.  Don't be a boring cook.  Be imaginative, creative, relax, and, have fun.

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2013)


Teresa! Coming from a pro like you, I take this as a huge compliment! ~ Mel.

Mel, this is a beautiful blog! Absolute perfection!

Marilyn! Once again, you made my day with your comment. I am so happy to hear you are a fellow foodie who keeps their spices in alphabetical order! Ya gotta love it!!! ~ Mel.

Mel! What a wonderful and helpful blog post! No wonder you do it all so well.
I'll bet you organize your spices in alphabetical order - I do! People roll their eyes when I say this, but I don't have to rummage around and search for my "Lavender"-an ingredient I don't use often. Thanks again!

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