FIRST, YOU HAVE A BEER…. It’s not an excuse to drink, it’s a proactive process or mindset to help minimize the natural angst of trying new things, no matter what they are. If it’s cooking, then it’s part of your mise en place. Depending upon your level of expertise and experience in the kitchen, angst can be pretty high and can take the joy out of everything. Preparation eliminates that.
I’m not suggesting everyone should drink to excess and forget that kitchens are dangerous places where you don’t want to be too impaired. I’m saying that proper preparation will make the process much more enjoyable, and after all, that’s why we’re doing this. So pause, take a deep breath, do what you need to do to relax and get in the right frame of mind. Maybe you don’t like beer, so have a wine or a whiskey, or recite your mantra, put on some music, think pure thoughts….whatever it is that will get you relaxed and ready to enjoy this process. No angst, remember? It’s all part of the preparation.
Keep safety in mind. A kitchen can be a very hazardous place. You’ve got extreme heat: hot and boiling water, flames and cooking elements on the stove and oven, extremely hot pots, pans and surfaces plus boiling ingredients. Knives can cut you, graters can scrape you, towels can catch on fire-there is no end to the hazards. Keep your knives sharp and the handles dry. Keep your hands clean and dry. Don’t leave the food preparation area a mess-have a bowl or a towel to hold all the waste from chopping or grating as you go. Keep the floor dry so you don’t slip. Have plenty of towels and pot holders close by. Once you have all the ingredients prepared, set them near the stove and clean up the food preparation area so that it’s orderly and you can get your hands on what you need when you need it.
It’s important to read the recipe for the first time before you get started (as opposed to while you are cooking) so that you know what ingredients you need and what pots and pans and other kitchen tools will be required. You don’t want to find out you are out of garlic while you’re sautéeing your onions! The recipe lists the steps and procedures you’ll need to turn those ingredients into the dish you desire and it will give you a good idea how much time it will take, but like a map or guidelines, it’s not a contract or a scared oath. The map gets you where you want to go but it does not mean you can’t take a detour and try the back roads for a scenic adventure. If there are ingredients you don’t like, try adjusting the quantities or some substitutes. Depending on your experience and skill level, a recipe will be a valuable guide, but as you gain confidence and you learn the methodology, you’ll find you want to change some things. That’s perfectly fine, the idea is to make it your own.
I learned a long time ago that the most enjoyable cook is one for which I am prepared. Once you’ve reviewed the recipe and gathered all the ingredients and tools, its time to cook. So have a beer while you read the recipe in detail again before you start. Prepare all your ingredients at the same time, don’t wait to chop the celery while the onions are browning. Get the ingredients out: peel, chop, cut, measure, slice and grate what you will need. Everything should go in its own bowl or measuring cup but it’s alright to put ingredients that you know will go in together in the same bowl. Combine all your herbs and spices together in a small bowl as long as you add them at the same time. It’s not unusual to add some spices separately, so you’ll want to keep them organized as such. Part of that preparation is to take out and arrange all the pots and pans that you will be using so that they are ready when you need them and don’t forget to preheat the oven if you need to.
With everything prepared beforehand and within reach and the food preparation area cleaned up a little, you can assemble your dish in a much more efficient manner, making the whole process less stressful and more enjoyable. The idea is to build flavors in layers-making a roux, then cooking the trinity in that roux, then when they are cooked enough add the aromatics-each step builds flavor along the way.
Many times it’s difficult to make a recipe come out exactly the way it did before because there are many factors that influence that-some as simple as altitude and variations in ingredients. The famous French chef, Jacques Pepin, says what we are going for is the “creation of a taste”. Any time we follow a recipe, creating that taste we want requires processes, timing and ingredients to be adjusted to fit the specific circumstances which differ each time you make the recipe. When I develop a recipe, it usually takes a few, sometimes many, iterations until I have created the taste I’m looking for. Then when I cook that dish again, it always comes out slightly different. Talk about angst! Look at First…you have a beer as a proactive process to minimize the natural angst in the creation of a taste-get your mind prepared, then get your stuff prepared.
I’ve been following this proactive approach for a long time…way before I found out there is a name for it. It’s called “mise en place”, which is a French culinary term that means everything in its place. You know its cool when there is a French culinary term for what you are doing. To its greatest extent, mise en place is not unlike the quality control practices common in manufacturing a few decades ago, although I’m sure mise en place predates the TQM movement by many, many years. Planning and preparing to succeed, mise en place, in its purest sense, even gets into ways to shop, ways to organize the food preparation area, the practice of cleaning up the food preparation area and how to organize the ingredients to make your cooking even more efficient. It’s fun when you are assembling the dish instead of fumbling through the process. You can concentrate on building a great dish, layer by layer, with no angst.
Like everything else, its a process…mostly a learning process. So first things first, and that means that First…you have a beer.
Yeah You Right!