I was not born with culinary aptitude. I can’t just open the fridge and whip up a delicious instagram-worthy meal with 2 eggs, a jar of pickles, half a carton of milk, strawberry preserves, a can of spam,and ketchup. I leave that talent to my food soulmate, Katy. She can glance at her pantry and in a blink of an eye, without breaking a sweat or running to allrecipes.com, produce a five course meal (fondant dessert included) worthy of 3 Michelin stars. My girlfriend’s dishes can make Gordon Ramsey weep and Iron Chefs bow in her presence.
I am no Katy, nor do I pretend to be. I am the antithesis! Structure, guidelines, directions, visuals, research, an array of comparisons, and ATLEAST 5 solid reviews are required before I can fully commit to a recipe. Most importantly, I need a recipe with detailed quantifications. The “pinch of salt” directive doesn’t work for me. The common Dominican phrase “hechale un chin” (add a little bit) , “un chorrito” (a splash) or my Cuban mother’s go to measurement, “a ojo de buen cubero”(eyeballing it) does not factor into my vocabulary. This gibberish absolutely blindsides me, sending me into a frenzied tailspin. What if it is not enough or what if it is toooooo much? This oblivion brings me to my knees begging for mercy and praying a novena to Our Lady of Julia Childs to guide and protect me from the fiasco of not knowing how or if this meal has a glimmer of hope. (My husband fancies himself a food critic, which does not help my cause nor my nerves.)
Therefore, for my mental health and the physical safety of those around me, I strategize all meals.
One of the best methods I have implemented is that I clean, peel, cut, chop, dice, shred, and measure all ingredients before hand and place them in ramekins. This rigid, OCD behavior is known as mise en place ([mi zɑ̃ ˈplas]). It is, by far, the absolute best cheat sheet, foolproof, cooking-for-dummies-can’t-mess-up method for preparing meals with precision, cleanliness, and meticulous efficiency.
For one, it prevents from missing key ingredients. What could be worse than baking brownies only to find out you are out of eggs half way through the process? Someone didn’t do their due diligence and therefore project brownies is a bust. Mise en place, people. MISE. EN. PLACE.
You are making your signature lasagna for Sunday’s family gathering and guess what? Not enough mozzarella to top it off. Could have avoided this fiasco had you simply measured your 3 cups of Mozzarella before we started cooking. Now your lasagna has (gasp) kraft american cheese topping it off and your mother-in-law is judging you…harshly. Mise en place, people. MISE. EN. PLACE.
You start sauteing garlic until golden brown. Need to add the chopped onions right after. Well my friends, garlic browns in less than 30 seconds. Unless you worked at Benihana, I highly doubt you can chop up that onion under 20 seconds! We now have burnt garlic. Debacle. Fail. Game over. Mise en place, people. MISE. EN. PLACE.
I do my due diligence in the kitchen. My mom never taught me to cook. l adore the woman. She adamantly believes pouring cold water into a pot of boiling hot oil while frying french fries makes them crunchier. See where I am going? No further explanation necessary.
Once I was married and in my own home, it was learn as you go. I was left to my own devices, which was not very much to speak of. I just do not have Katy’s clandestine trouble shooting skills and do not have the culinary creativity or imagination to leave anything to chance. Mise en place prevents castrophes, fires, judgey in-laws, and full blown panic attacks.
Crucial to evolving in any project one approaches, be it the kitchen or boardroom, is to identify and embrace your weakness and try to figure out ways to make that weakness work. I have found that the extra time and effort put into menu planning, creating a well thought out grocery list, a properly stocked pantry, researching and comparing recipes, and finally mise en place are key to pulling out a scrumptious, or atleast edible dinners without any casualties of war.
It has been a good 9 years learning the art of cooking via Le Cordon Google with Chef You Tube, and I can finally say I feel some semblance of comfort and accomplishment in the kitchen, but I NEVER, NEVER, NEVER stray from my measuring spoons, measuring cups or my mise en place!