Let’s face it, I’m as predictable as romantic comedies when it comes to many things, not least of all, choosing the path of least resistance when fixing food. If there’s a shortcut to the shortbread, lemme at it. If there’s a snappier way to trim snap peas, I’m on board with that. But if there’s one thing I know is worth any amount of trouble, it’s prep. It’s not glamorous, I’ll grant you, and sometimes gets mighty tedious, especially when there’s a sizable party or elaborate meal on the horizon. But there is nothing that makes the rest of the time in the kitchen more tolerable, even enjoyable, than having the best of mise en place at my fingertips.
I did my time as a house painter, back in the misty distance, and I learned tout de suite that there was no substitute for careful first steps when it came to a fine finished product; I spent some time laboring backstage and behind the scenes in theatres and found that what’s seen when the curtain’s rung up is about a thousandth of what’s been and being done for the production. Of course, my conductor husband works in a discipline where the inexperienced concert-attendee would be wildly off base to think that all performers do is get up onstage and wave arms or pipe on musical contraptions or flap tongues. Even if they have an inkling that rehearsals are necessary, they haven’t imagined the tiniest increment of blood, sweat and tears that went into a performance. And I’m fairly certain I haven’t come across any other field in which that doesn’t generally hold true. What goes on before-hand is such an essential and formative part of what comes out of the proscenium or oven that sometimes I think we’re guilty of assuming everyone would just plain intuit that. We need to tell the inexperienced what a beautiful thing is that dull seeming preparatory work, what glorious jewels are the salt-cellar and oil bottle and dishes of neatly diced Tasso and shredded Reggiano and chiffonaded basil.
Even the finished dish may not look particularly artistic, unless it’s something generally far more designer-iffic than what I’m likely to produce at my board, but it is an infinitely greater pleasure to prepare and serve food that was made easier to prepare and serve by having arranged for good mise en place in good time. There’s both the initial set of ingredients and tools that ought to be at the ready, and then there’s the lineup of Parts that precedes the final plating for presentation, and both serve to wonderfully streamline the efforts.
Part of the effectiveness and pleasure of mise en place for a visual obsessive like me is that it allows me to ‘paint’ with the food, whether in creating the individual dishes or in building the presentation, modest though it might be, by considering not only all of the flavors and practical characteristics of the ingredients but also their colors, shapes, visual textures and other attributes that can contribute to the integrity and–God willing–deliciousness of the whole.
So this is why, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I’ve been brewing broth for gravy, concocting relishes and garnishes, butterflying the turkey and brining it (tomorrow it bathes sous vide, Thursday gets its high-roast crunch on!), roasting potatoes so that they will make heavenly light mash despite the added gallons of cream and pounds of butter, and all of that other ‘peripheral’ stuff. It’s not much to look at, to be sure, but I think I’ll manage to get a pretty fair showing out of it all eventually, because I’m laying the groundwork and setting the foundations first. Amen, let’s eat!