From My Wok to Yours - Taking the Mystery Out of Everyday Dining and Meals!!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Is It REALLY Worth the Clean Up?

So yesterday, after dinner, Kim asked Eleyna whether or not the meal was worth having to clean up after the cook.  (Our rule in the house is that He who cooks, does not clean.)  It's good for me.

I got a begrudging affirmation, when Eleyna, with her typical pre-teen "I can't stand this" attitude, said, "Yeah, I guess."

Her one stipulation to being willing to clean?  I cannot continue to leave such a mess. This dinner was no such exception.  She hates it when I leave such a Mess in Place.  The solution?  Mise en Place.

Umm... Okay, a French term for a Chinese Food Blog.  Yes, but I did say that we would be exploring GLOBAL cuisines and that incorporates multiple terms and tools from multiple nations.
All mise en place, pronounced MEEZ ahn plahs, means is to have all your ingredients prepared and ready to go before you start cooking. Simply put,  “ to put in place.”

It's kind of like how Kim prepares for a trip. Or Christmas.  Or preps for doing taxes.  Buy or assemble all the stuff you need then prep it all, and put it all together.  (months in advance.)

More often than I care to admit, I  jump right into a recipe with little or no prep believing that I can chop the garlic while the onions are sautéing. 4 steps into the recipe I then find it necessary to reduce some balsamic vinegar before adding it to the dish and invariably end up scurrying around trying to get it done before the onions and garlic overcook, thus throwing my timing completely off.
I’m not sure why it is such a challenge to accept this idea but it’s similar to asking someone to preheat their grill or sauté pan before starting to cook. How many of us just go out to the gas grill, turn it on for a couple of minutes, throw a chunk of meat on it and start grilling? It’s the same with searing or sautéing on your stovetop. Let those pans heat up some before you start cooking. If you are cooking with oil, it should just about be smoking before you add your main ingredients.

The ultimate Mise En Place involves making sure that every single ingredient that is going to be used in a particular meal is readily available.  More often than not, I end up having to call my wife at work and ask her to pick up some beef stock, or sliced mushrooms, or an onion, just to be able to put the entire recipe together.  (And I wonder why cooking off the cuff is so mentally exhausting...)  Yeah.  Calling the neighbor to borrow a cup of milk, or a stick of butter?  I've been there, and it only makes it harder to get in the habit of assembling everything together if that mini-mart is so readily available. 

Here’s where my wife and I approach cooking from different points of view. She is so much more organized than I am and therefore never finds herself running out to the store at the last minute. When we are in the deciding phase of determining what to make for the next week's meals, she discovers a delicious looking recipe in one of our many cooking magazines, makes a LIST of ingredients that she will need, goes to the store and buys all the ingredients on her LIST, and then comes home and has me start prepping all the ingredients on her LIST. This is the way to do it. Forget about trying to wing it like I often do and think, “Oh, if I don’t have what I need I will just find a great substitute for it.”   If you are not intimately familiar with the wide array of flavors that cross your palate, then random combinations of flavors could be a REALLY bad thing. 

No way. Doesn't work. Maybe if you are a trained professional you could get away with it but it is not a great way for a beginner home cook to learn. And if you ever have the opportunity to meet a professional chef sometime, ask them how much time they put into mise en place everyday.

If you ever have the occasion to dine in a restaurant with an open kitchen that has a counter you can sit at and watch the chefs do their work, give it a go.  If you have ever worked in a restaurant that has line cooks, or even a sous chef, you will know that all of their ingredients are prepped and assembled in one station.  A pizza parlor has all of their ingredients prepped and assembled on their cooler ready for quick pie assembly.

If you watch the pros, you will see that they can get out many appetizers, salads, entrees, & desserts with relative ease. Sure they have a crew of three or four, but think about how much work goes into cooking a gourmet dinner for six in your own home. These guys are putting out a hundred plus dinners per night.

What should come to your attention is their mise en place. Each station is fully prepped with all the ingredients necessary to make a particular dish. All the meats, chicken, and fish are cut and de boned, the fresh herbs for seasoning sauces are washed, cut, and separated into small bowls, the vegetables are sliced, diced, or julienned to the correct size, everything ready to go because when the show gets going, there is no time to go back and dice up some carrots. The show must go on.

What we don’t see are the hours spent during the day when prep chefs are working hard to get everything ready for the evening event. As many hours going into prepping for a typical night in a good restaurant as there are for actual cooking.

Such foresight would have come in handy, had I not thought to myself "Oh, let's do (this) tonight, to use up (that.)"  Sadly, the meal that I ended up cooking was one that should not have been done on a week night, as it required 2 hours to do properly, and I somehow managed to do it in 1.  The beef stock should have reduced by half, and it would have required another 30 minutes.  The potatoes should have been fully cooked in the oven, which would have required another 45 minutes.  The beef should have been allowed to simmer in the juices to tenderize, which would have required another 20 minutes.

But when you have 2 daughters clamoring for food, you have to take shortcuts, that invariably result in compromising the quality of the meal.  If you don't have the time to do it right? Don't do it.  But, really, besides all that, if your seasoning is spot on, how hard is it to do a Stew-Stuffed Potato?   Not really hard, I think...

Until I really find out, Good Eating, Friends...

Colin's Stew-Stuffed Potatoes


8 cups low-sodium beef stock

3 large russet potatoes

Extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons butter

1 cup sour cream

2 pounds beef chuck, trimmed and cut into 1-inch cubes

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Water, as needed

1 1/2 cups sliced onions

2 cups sliced mushrooms


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Put the beef stock in a large saucepan over medium heat and bring to a boil. Cook until the liquid is reduced by half, leaving 4 cups.

Put the potatoes on a rimmed baking sheet and roast until just tender, about 45 minutes. When cool enough to handle, cut potatoes in half lengthwise and using a spoon, remove the potato flesh and set aside, leaving 1/2-inch thick rim around the edges. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of olive oil on the baking sheet and put potato shells on it, cut side down; bake until the cut side is golden brown and skin is crispy, about 20 minutes.

Pat the meat pieces dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large Dutch oven and sear the beef on all sides to a deep golden brown, about 10 minutes. Remove the meat to a plate and carefully add a tablespoon of water to the hot pot, scraping up the brown bits from bottom of the pan. Add a tablespoon or two of olive oil and saute the onions and mushrooms and season with salt and pepper, to taste. Cook about 7 minutes, stirring often, until the onions begin to caramelize, adding water, as needed, to deglaze the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. When the onions are a deep golden brown, add the reduced beef stock and the beef and their juices and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer and cook until the meat is tender, skimming fat off the top, if necessary, about 35 to 40 minutes
Pass the reserved potato flesh through a ricer or mash with a masher until smooth, adding hot water to loosen them. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil, butter, sour cream, then season with salt and pepper, to taste, and mix well.
Ladle the stew into the crisp potato bowls, top with a spoon of mashed potatoes and enjoy.

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1 comment:

  1. I'm very organized with setting everything in order for what I want to bake or cook.
    I'm neat, too, wiping up as I go along.
    Some recipes are a bit of effort and mess, and Tom, my husband, will ask 'why I bothered to go too all the trouble'.
    It's always worth the compliments.
    Thanks again for sharing your recipes!