Everything in its place

And, the hoity-toity French phrase of the week is…mise en place.

What is it about the French language that annoys me so much?   Maybe it’s the way that the French don’t bother to pronounce many of the letters that make up their words.   Maybe it’s the haughty names they give to such simple things like, “béchamel”, which is really just milk gravyC’mon, it’s gravy for cryin’ out loud!

But, I have to admit, the French were on to something when they came up with mise en place, the phrase that means, “everything in its place”.  The concept, as it relates cooking, is that a cook can set up a kitchen by organizing  ingredients that are needed for a certain menu.  Mise en place is intended to be a time saver. 

If I am making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I need four things.  Peanut butter, jelly, bread and a knife.  (Yes, just one knife.  I can smear some peanut butter on one slice of bread and then clean the knife on the other slice of bread, thereby permitting the use of the same knife to scoop out the jelly, without tainting the jelly jar in the process.)

Okay, the point I was trying to make before I became distracted by my own silliness is that you don’t need to lay out everything in place before making a PB&J.  You might grab a loaf of bread and put two slices on a plate.  And then, you might go to the pantry to pick up a jar of peanut butter and then smear some of it on a slice of bread.  Then, you might go to the refrigerator to hunt for the jelly.  Oh no, all you see is boring, utilitarian grape jelly…now, you have to search the depths of the fridge to find the delicious strawberry preserves.  Ah, there it is…that’s better!  Then, you finish the sandwich with a smear of strawberry preserves.  Even though you had to take time to search for the strawberry preserves, you didn’t really waste that much time.

But, there are times that you will want to have everything you need already in front of you, ready for action.  I find myself needing this sort of preparedness when I make a stir fry. 

Stir frying with a wok requires high heat and speed and it requires having the many vegetables and meats prepared, in advance.  You will want to have the menu items peeled, sliced or chopped and ready to introduce to the wok.  And, you will want to have everything within arm’s reach as you work your magic with the wok.  For this, you need to utilize mise en place.

I say all of this because I didn’t always understand the advantages that mise en place had to offer until I started cooking for parties and family gatherings.  Nothing can kill the spirit of a party like having to wait for hours and hours while a meal is being prepared.  Even if your goal is to immerse your guests in the act of preparing a meal, do you really want to have everyone tripping over themselves in your kitchen while they peel, grate, and cut? 

Here is an example of mise en place in practice, as I prepared for a recent stir fry dish. 

Now, I don’t always use this many prep bowls when I utilize mise en place.  Most of the time I just use one or two large, shallow bowls to hold the different items.  I grab what I need from the bowl and toss it in the wok, when I need it.  It makes for a quick clean-up.  But, for this particular culinary adventure, I decided to use lots of little prep bowls.

The rice is steaming on the stove and I am ready to crank up the wok!  After a few minutes of fire and frenzy, it will all be ready to serve.

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