I'm not feeling mellifluous today so let's just dive right in ...
The single most basic skill you can learn that will help you become a better cook is something called mise en place. The literal translation (from French) is something like "putting in place," but in cooking it is used to mean "get your act together." It's the state of physical and mental preparedness you need before starting what most people call "cooking." I used quotes there because any chef will tell you that even though it may not look like it, mise en place is every bit as important as the chopping and the sauteing and the stirring.
For the average home cook, mise en place has three parts, all quite simple. First, read the recipe; second, gather all your tools and ingredients; third, do all the cutting and measuring. Then, and only then, should you start to cook. Let's look at each part separately.
Read the recipe. Actually, you need to read the recipe several times, starting at least three days before you want to actually cook the dish described by the recipe. Let's assume you want to cook something for dinner on Saturday night: No later than Wednesday night (maybe right after dinner), read the recipe. Make a list of all the ingredients you'll need, and then double-check the procedure for any steps that have to be done in advance; things like soaking beans overnight or marinating the fish for six hours. Now take the list of ingredients and go figure out what you need to buy. Go shopping tomorrow, buying everything you need except what would spoil by Saturday.
On Thursday night, double-check the recipe for steps that require advanced preparation. Work out your schedule for Friday so you'll have time to complete those steps.
On Friday night, after you've completed any advanced prep, figure out what you need to buy when you go shopping tomorrow morning. It should be a short list: delicate fruits and vegetables, whatever form of animal protein you need, and bread. Next, re-read the procedure and figure out how long each step will take; remember to count the time to prepare each of the ingredients. Add up the total time, subtract it from the time you want to eat, give yourself an extra half an hour, then write on the recipe what time you need to start each step. Last, look at what pots and pans and implements you'll need; if they're dirty, wash them before you go to bed. You may as well wipe down your counters while you're at it. Oh, and don't forget to wash the dishes in the sink, so they won't be there when you need to drain the pasta.
Finally, on Saturday, about 15 minutes before you're supposed to start cooking, read the recipe one last time. Ignore the list of ingredients, we'll get to those in a moment. Instead, pay attention to the procedure: Think about it, think about how you'll perform each step, where you'll do it (stove, sink, or counter?), what pots and tools you'll need, etc. And now, at long last, we come to the second step.
Gather all your tools and ingredients. Yes, all of them: The vegetables, the herbs and spices, the liquids, meats, pots, pans, knives, cutting boards, prep bowls, spoons and spatulas, apron, hat, sturdy shoes, your reading glasses, and maybe something to drink while you're working. Sharpen your knife, put the pots and pans on the stove, the utensils on a plate beside the stove, the cutting board on the counter, and line up everything else behind or beside the cutting board, within easy reach.
Yes, I really do mean it. Every. Single. Item. Use the recipe as a list, and check off each thing as you go if that's what it takes to make sure get them all. In another minute you're going to be cutting and sauteing and stirring, and that's no time to be wondering where the paprika is or whether you remembered to add the lemon juice. So please take my word on this one: Get all the ingredients before you do anything else.
Do all the cutting and measuring. Work your way down the list of ingredients, measuring or preparing each one in turn. Slice the onions, peel and chop the garlic, remove the seeds from the tomatoes, cut the sausage into half discs, measure out the beer, and combine the spices in a small bowl. As you do this, check the procedure and see what things get cooked together; you may as well put them all in the same bowl, to save you having to think about it when you're trying to not over-cook the shrimp. One last thing: When you're finished all the prep work, and you have everything in bowls or measuring cups on plates, line up everything in the order you'll use it. Put the first item to be cooked closest to the stove, the last one at the end of the line however far down the counter. Every time you let something simmer or reduce or come to a boil, put the empty bowls in the sink and move the full bowls closer to the stove.
All this may seem overly fussy, or too regimented, or just not to your liking. Please take my word for it: it’s the single most simple (and easiest) thing you can do to improve your cooking.
[Friday, 17 September 2010]