Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Lazy Fare How-To: Mise En Place

Almost done with my trashy vampire novel, so how about a post that might be useful?

First, please notice the title and see how truly clever I am. Drop the "i" from faire, removing the suspicion that I misspelled Laissez. End up with a much cuter wordplay description of the kind of party throwing I'd like to teach. So from now on these how-tos will officially be part of the Lazy Fare (TM) approach to party planning.

First up! Mise en place. What is it? Why would you want to do it? And what's the Lazy Fare way?

Mise en place: What
A fancy French term that literally means "put in place." If you've ever watched any cooking show and observed each ingredient in its own little bowl that's mise en place. In fact, each ingredient in its own container is hard-core mise en place and decidedly not lazy fare. It's preparing all your ingredients ahead of time, before you begin any cooking and/or mixing together.

Mise en place: Why
There are a number of reasons for doing mise en place, depending on what you are trying to accomplish. We'll set aside why the pros do it, since if you're a professional chef you're not going to learn much from me. So why might you want to do this as part of party planning or even for everyday cooking?
  1. It makes recipe preparation much faster by "batching" the type of work you're doing. Despite what we're told, multi-tasking is bad. By being in either "prep mode" or "cooking mode" you work more efficiently.
  2. It allows for quicker assembly and cooking times. This is different from #1 because here I'm talking about the actual time you spend cooking the final dish. If you're having a multi-course dinner party you will almost certainly have to prepare at least one dish during the party. You can jet into the kitchen for 10 minutes to assemble something if all the prep is done up front. For everyday cooking, it allows you to have a meal all prepped and ready for cooking. I have more time to prep earlier in the day and dinner time is always frantic. Some people even do their prep after dinner for the next day. At the very least you get a fresher dinner on the table in less time.
  3. It lowers your stress while you're cooking (see multi-tasking is bad above).
  4. It allows you to bunch up prep across multiple dishes (dinner party) or meals (weekly meal prep). This is really a variation on #1, but I'm on a list making roll. It's much easier and faster to slice 5 onions one time than one onion 5 times. Not to mention, why clean-up more times than you have to?
  5. When people ask what you're doing you can affect a snooty french look and say "Why, I'm doing my mise en place of course." Bonus points if you act shocked that they even have to ask.
Mise en place: (Lazy fare) How
The most straight-forward mise en place is what you see on most cooking shows: every ingredient in its own little container. But unless you have a staff doing this for you it's way more work than you need. You can get all the benefits with a streamlined version.

Lazy fare = doing the least amount of work for the best possible finished dish. And here I'm actually distinguishing between the kind of work you do standing on your feet in the kitchen and the kind you can do sitting in front of the TV or over coffee and bagels (Eric's and my favorite party planning activity). We want to minimize the first kind by doing more of the second kind. But still the least possible amount of both. Lazy, remember?

I'm going to use Alton Brown's Guacamole recipe for this example because it's yummy, lends itself well to demonstrating what I'm talking about and I made it last weekend for a Cinco de Mayo party so I have pictures.

The recipe is here: Alton's Guacamole Recipe. I'm pasting the text at the end of this post just in case they move the link. It might be useful to have a copy of the recipe in a 2nd browser tab while you read through this. If you're hardcore go ahead and print it and mark it up.

Step 1: Read the entire recipe through at least once.

Step 2:  No really. Read the entire recipe through at least once. 
I'm not kidding about this and I'll wait while you do it.... looo dee dooo...done? Good. I used to think that cooking was something everyone could do, because I've been doing it since I was about 8 or 9. Then I watched The Worst Cooks in America and realized that a lot of people don't learn how to cook when they are kids. The number one mistake I saw these rookie cooks make was to just plunge into the recipe without reading it all the way through. It's not a good idea even if you're not doing mise and it's impossible to do mise without reading it all the way through.

Step 3: Group the ingredients together based on the steps in the recipe
This is the lazy fare part of it. For regular mise en place you would just prep all the ingredients in the list, one by one. That's usually a waste of effort and dishes.

Here are the groups from Alton's recipe:
  • Avocado
  • lime juice
  • salt, cumin, and cayenne
  • onions, tomatoes, cilantro, and garlic
Step 4: Start preparing the groups of ingredients, working from the "bottom" of the recipe up
I try to dirty as few bowls as I can in this process, which means I usually have one of the groups prepared in the bowl, pan or pot that I plan to use for the final mixing and/or cooking. In this case I would prep the avocados in the bowl I served the dip in. And I would prep those last since it's step one of my recipe. i.e. once I had the other three groups prepped I would just start following the recipe. If you're doing your mise  with the intention of preparing the final dish at a later time you could use any container for the "main" group.

I also like to do the prep work in the order that is least likely to cross-contaminate, either with germs or just flavors. So plain veggies first, then stinky veggies, then raw meat. I don't have to worry as much about my knives that way. (I don't worry at all about my cutting boards because ours are color coded by food type, but that's a neurosis for another day).

For this recipe I cut all the veggies into a single bowl, measured the spices into a separate bowl and squeezed the limes into a third bowl. That was my entire mise. I then peeled the avocados as I started mixing the dish.

So I had this

Step 5: Assembly!
Which should now be easy, peasy. This assembly took less than 5 minutes.


For a future post: Doing your mise en place for several recipes at a time.



Recipe courtesy Alton Brown

Prep Time: 20 min
Inactive Prep Time: 1 hr 0 min
Cook Time:--
Level: Easy
Serves: 1 batch


  • 3 Haas avocados, halved, seeded and peeled
  • 1 lime, juiced
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1/2 medium onion, diced
  • 2 Roma tomatoes, seeded and diced
  • 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
  • 1 clove garlic, minced


In a large bowl place the scooped avocado pulp and lime juice, toss to coat. Drain, and reserve the lime juice, after all of the avocados have been coated. Using a potato masher add the salt, cumin, and cayenne and mash. Then, fold in the onions, tomatoes, cilantro, and garlic. Add 1 tablespoon of the reserved lime juice. Let sit at room temperature for 1 hour and then serve.


Kitschy Coo said...

If I ever have a dinner party that doesn't involve the food being delivered, you're my lady. This is really informative!

andrew said...

One thing that I've had some success with is doing some of the common mise you need in bulk, then freezing it. i.e. I've got a few ziplock bags that contain one chopped onion each sitting in the freezer. If something calls for sauteed onion, or onion to put in a soup or something, I can grab a bag and dump it in. I've done the same thing with green peppers, mirepoix, some herbs, etc.

Not everything freezes well for all applications though. I wouldn't use the frozen onions in the guac, as they are pretty terrible un-cooked. However, I can't really tell a huge difference when I need a pile of sauteed onion for something like chili. Herbs worked less well, but I think the same thing holds. I wouldn't make pesto out of frozen basil, but I would definitely use the frozen basil in a soup or something where the basil is a side flavor and not the main thing going on.

Another thing with Mise that you forgot to mention, cooking with kids. If you don't have to worry about chopping something quickly so you can get it added to the pan in time, you can spend more time cooking with your kid. For me, cutting quickly is incompatible with a 3yr old. She will sometimes help me do some of the prep cutting, but when it comes time to cook saying "Dump that bowl into that pan" is great.

auntninn said...

@Andrew - good additions all. I am not to the cooking with kids stage yet, but I can see how much easier it would be with prep done. For a number of reasons. :)

And I'm with you on the frozen stuff. In fact, I sometimes buy frozen, chopped veggies for when I don't have any time. If they're going to be cooked they're just as good. My current favorite to buy rather than prep is frozen cubes of cilantro at Trader Joe's. It's $2 for a pack of 20 or so. Very nice to have handy because I rarely use a whole bunch of cilantro and am too lazy to freeze it up myself.

Sister said...

Wow - how long did it take you to write that? With a child in the house? Just fantastic - I learned something! I think that's the recipe my husband uses for guacamole, and I can attest to the fact that it's fabulous. (We love Alton Brown, though he's a tad anal-retentive.)

auntninn said...

@Sister, I'm glad it was useful! It was daddy's night to put her to bed so I used precious computer time, and I'm glad it was worth it. Plus, I type about 90+ words a minute, so that helps.