Monday, March 2, 2009

Mis En Place

Mis En Place is a French phrase that literally means "put in place," but it's used by chefs to refer to their "setup" for what they're going to cook. In other words, ingredients, spices, prepped items, and the tools needed / used to accomplish this.

For me, I've always just thought of the term as a reference to my "stuff" that I'm going to use to prepare the night's recipes. My little piles of items that are so important in producing your meal.

We had a phenomenal kitchen setup in the Bend house, and I miss it like nobody can imagine, unless you've made a similar transition. My "dream kitchen" consisted of a great 36" six burner stove with a huge convection oven. I had a second convection oven and microwave built into the wall, giving me tremendous flexibility in preparing complex meals. Big refrigerator, a huge functional center island, nice stainless sink with two deep wells, custom travertine tile everywhere, a silent dishwasher ... you get the point.

Relocating to the Bay Area meant compromises. First, a very small apartment for the first few months where I didn't even unpack most of my "stuff." Neither the cupboard or the stove would accomodate my 16 quart stock pot, let alone the 20 quart. And now we're in an older home with equally old appliances and minimal work surfaces, where I prepare all the lavish meals that I write about, and you faithful readers generally enjoy reading about.

But alas, this isn't a "woe is me" essay, but rather one about the things that we cooks need to have handy. To organize the ingredients for a meal ... places to hold the ingredients (the bowl collection), things to cut them up (the knife collection) and of course all the little spices that make them taste so good for our appreciative audiences.

Prior to my six weekends at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco (now a Le Cordon Bleu branch), I'd never used bowls. Never really thought about doing so, actually. But once you get into cutting several hundred items into neat little juliennes, chiffonades, minces, fine chops, etc., you need to "stage" them in preparation for their inclusion into the meal you're constructing. Hence ... bowls. Mine come in 3 sizes, ranging from about 4" to maybe 8. I have tiny ones for garlic, saffron, small spice combinations, etc., but the 4" variety is generally the small "workhorse" of the group. Medium bowls hold a little more, larger ones will accomodate a couple chopped onions. If I'm chopping 6 onions, it's a mad dash to the bottom drawer under the oven, where the monstrous bowls are hibernating until they're required. Which is fairly often, actually.

My jambalaya recipe (at the bottom) contains 10 different spices, a combination of celery, onions, and peppers, sausages, chicken, etc., ALL of which require bowls or some way to store them on the counter, as you're assembling the dish. I don't think I could make this without my bowls! They're absolutely indispensible to have in your kitchen. Mine ran me a buck or two or three each, and I've had them all since 1994. If you have a restaurant supply store nearby that sells to the public, this is your best bet.

Knives are obviously a chef's pride and joy. There was a time when I maintained that I could do an entire meal with one or two knives. Which ones? I could probably survive on a desert island with a small paring knife and my LamsonSharp Chinese-style cleaver (a "slicing" vs. chopping cleaver). Fortunately, I wouldn't have to, because I'm a total nutcase for knives, and have way too many of them. An unjustifiable accumulation of cutlery, for sure. And I use and appreciate every single one of them.

The rack pictured to the right are some of the "most used" knives. They include a Santoku and an 8" Chef's from Henkel's, a Wustof 6", Global 8" Chef's, and an 8" Victronix slicer on the top row. The LamsonSharp cleaver, an 8" Dexter-Russell Chef's, my prized Shun Ken Onion 8" Chef's, and a small paring knife are on the bottom row. I also have a drawer full of mix 'n match knives, as well as a full knife block with a Martin Yan cleaver, my bread knife, 10" ham slicer, a boning knife, a filet knife, a couple more Globals ... you get the picture. The Shun is obviously a pleasure to use and cuts much better than the $22 Dexter-Russell, but is it TEN TIMES better? Of course not. I'm a sick puppy, and I'm seeking professional help for it.

To the right is my little collection of "stuff" (there's so much of that in this writeup!) that I keep just to the left of the stove, and use with virtually everything I create. There's a shot glass full of plastic spoons for both me and my anxious guests to "taste" what I'm making. A collection of pot holders (nothing pretty - they're in the drawer and I never use them. Note to "friends" of cooks: we don't want / need / use fancy pot holders. Just the ones that work and stave off heat from our scorching pots and pans).

A stack of plastic trays that we inherited from a dear friend who used to live on diet microwave meals, serves as a resting place for the spoons and spatulas that I'm using. Fancy spoon rests look nice, but these were free, and I've been using them daily and tossing them into the dishwasher for over 15 years. The stainless steel vessel in the front is a salt container given to me by my good friend Wes, and is indespensible for adding the inevitable "dash" or "pinch" to a dish. You can't shake a pinch from the salt shaker you see in the background.

The three utensil containers that sit in the corner contain the "most used" collection of this and that, that I, and every cook, uses on a daily basis. Specialty items can live in a nearby drawer, but you need to have these available for "right now" use; A peeler, meat thermometer, a couple of spatulas, most-used graters (two Microplanes minimum), pasta server, spoons - slotted, big, small, soup/sauce varieties, whisks, can opener, ice cream scoop, etc. These are the things that I have to have a "stretch" away. Not in a drawer buried under the designer / cutsie pot holders that I've already said we NEVER use. Handy ... easy to grab.

Cooking is akin to a dance, in my humble opinion. And this is coming from a devout "non-dancer." I've played drums since I was 14, and have no problem with two bass pedals, a hi-hat pedal, and 2 sticks flying over my five drum surfaces, but dancing's type of coordination I've never mastered. But orchestrating a collection of ingredients and creating a masterpiece with them requires a coordinated set of movements that are practiced, perfected, and applied in a very artistic fashion to create something special for family, friends, and cherished guests who truly appreciate your efforts.

Larry's Jambalaya
Adapted from a Paul Prudhomme recipe, and modified to my taste

Seasoning Mix
1 tablespoon each - Sweet paprika, onion powder, salt
2 teaspoons each - White pepper, black pepper, dry mustard, dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon each - Ground cumin, cayenne pepper
- combine and stir in a bowl

Main Ingredients
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
2 green bell peppers, chopped
4 ribs of celery, chopped
- Combine in a bowl

1 6-8 oz package of smoked ham or turkey, julienned (slice thin)
1 package of Andouille Sausage (Aidell's are great), sliced thin at an angle
Package of boneless/skinless chicken breasts (four halves or 2 full), cut into small diced pieces
3 bay leaves
2 lg (#2 cans) of diced tomatoes
Lg (49 oz) can of 99% fat free chicken broth
3 cups of uncooked white rice
1 package of frozen chopped okra (don't use fresh or whole - not the same effect)
Gumbo File (spice section at your supermarket, usually a tallish thin glass jar)
2 tablespoons of canola oil
Tabasco Sauce (red, original style)

To Prepare
  • Heat the oil in a large stockpot (10 qt or bigger) to medium high
  • Combine 2/3 of the onion/celery/peppers, 1/2 the andouille sausage, 1/2 the seasoning mix in the pot. Stir frequently, scraping the bottom when needed, for 10-12 minutes. You'll think it's going to burn - it won't if you keep stirring.
  • Stir in 1/2 the stock, 1 can of tomatoes, return to a boil, cook another 10 minutes
  • Add the chicken, smoked turkey/ham, remaining seasoning mix, cook another 10 minutes stirring occasionally
  • Stir in the second can of tomatoes, frozen okra, remaining onions/peppers/celery, andouille, and stock. Return to a boil, cook another 10 minutes
  • Stir in 1 tablespoon of gumbo file
  • Add the rice, stir well, partially cover the pot, simmer for 20 minutes.
  • The jambalaya should get thick but not dried out. Check as the rice is cooking and if it's too thick or dry, add more hot water or chicken stock.
  • Serve with Tabasco Sauce and Gumbo File, for who wants it.
  • NOTE #1: This works great with a thick noodled pasta, as a substitute to the rice.
  • NOTE #2: If you're actually IN New Orleans when you serve this, you already know that it's the LAW to use both Tabasco and File on your jambalaya ... but that's a whole other story.


Lori said...

I love jambalaya!

Suzanne Casamento said...

I'm drooling over that six burner stove. And the knives and just about everything you wrote... ; )

Pierce said...

Great post and I am now drooling over the dream kitchen! It would be so nice to have two ovens and a six burner gas stove. My my, what I could do with that set up.

What do you think of Global knives? I have two and they are very nice.


Gayathri said...

first time i stopped by your blog, great postings.. Will stop frequently... now on

Sapuche said...

I wish I had even a fraction of your cooking equipment! I use small rice bowls, cereal bowls, Tupperware, and even teacups to hold the ingredients I’ve prepared in advance of my cooking. And I generally use one knife, a very sharp Japanese blade, for everything I cut, chop, mince, etc. I like your advice of trying a restaurant supply store. I’ll definitely have to look into it, though I’m really limited in terms of my storage space! Oh, and your Jambalaya recipe looks excellent. Great post! I feel like I learned a lot about proper cooking and kitchen equipment.

Larry said...

Thanks for the kind words! Always appreciated. The bowls are truly inexpensive, and they all stack in a very small footprint. As for the knives, as long as it's sharp, that's all that matters! I have a 15 year old Dexter is among my most used. Cost all of $24 in 1994!

Karen Brown Letarte said...

I can certainly sympathize with your frustration with inadequate kitchen space. We are looking for a house to rent and the achilles heel always seems to be the kitchen! I need to have more than 2 square feet of counterspace in order to work!

I am envious of your knife collection. I have a Wusthof Santoku that I use for most everything, supplemented by some cheap serrated knives my mom got me 20 years ago.

I go back and forth on the merits of taking the time to prepare a mise en place... usually I don't bother, except with Indian or Asian food where you've got to have things pretty much ready to go.

Your jambalaya recipe looks delicious! Thanks for following my blog!
:) Karen