Before I go, I have something to say

A Place for Everything, and – Oh, You Know

Has this ever happened to you? There you are, clad in apron and hot mitts, running between the stove and the sink, trying to put together a meal for your family or company – something complicated, something you’ve never tried before, unlike the usual meals you could probably cook in your sleep. It’s time to add the carrots to the stew, but they first have to be cut up. Now you need to stir in three tablespoons of flour, but the flour’s in the cupboard under the sugar, and the only tablespoon you’ve got is still sticky with the oil you measured earlier. Even though you have all the ingredients – somewhere – none of them is ready to go, and you’re beginning to sweat, and not just because the front burner is turned up to High.

There is a way out of this chaos, and I’m happy to tell you about it. It even has a cool name: “mise en place,” pronounced MEEZ ahn plahs. You just know that if it’s French, it has to be good, especially if you’re talking about cooking. It’s no wonder Julia Child found her calling after she moved to Paris.

The term’s literal meaning is “to put in place.” What it really means is having all your ingredients prepared and ready to go before beginning to cook. If the recipe calls for two stalks of celery, chopped, you do that first, before browning the meat, even if the vegetables are added an hour later. If there are also onions and potatoes to be added at the same time as the celery, they can all be cut up and put together into a big bowl. But if the onions are first to be stir-fried in the oil left over after browning the meat, you’ll want to keep them separate.

If you watch any cooking shows, you may have seen evidence of this method in action. Not that you will ever see a celebrity chef measuring sugar from a bag. Oh, no; her elves have already done all that work, and put the precise amounts of everything needed to make a cranberry clafouti or beef bourguignon into bowls, large or small. (Custard cups come in very handy for small bits of food and spices.)

To make a proper mise en place, you must first read the recipe all the way through. While this may seem obvious, listen to Julia Child’s warning in the foreword to “Mastering the Art of French Cooking:” “Too often, a debutant cook will start in enthusiastically on a new dish without ever reading the recipe first. Suddenly an ingredient, or a process, or a time sequence will turn up, and there is astonishment, frustration, and even disaster.”

I can relate. I’ve learned the hard way never to assume there is enough flour on hand, or brown sugar, or any of those staples we think will never run out. Spices are the worst. Should a cake recipe require a half-teaspoon of cinnamon, how many of us simply assume that we have some, right there in the cupboard? We forget that even the most basic foodstuffs are eventually used up. So I force myself to check the pantry for even the most mundane things – salt? butter? – before heading off to the store.

There is also the matter of having the right equipment. Cooking fresh cherries? I hope you’ve got a cherry pitter. Craving popovers? I hate to break it to you, but you’ll need a popover pan, and those are hard to come by at Wal-Mart or Target.

A well-done mise en place is a sight to behold. It tells you that Yes, the peppers are diced. It shows you that, No problem, there’s enough oil left to brown the chicken, plus garlic cloves which you have already minced and dropped into a bowl with the sliced shallots. It assures you the chicken will fit in the pot. Here is your dinner, deconstructed.

Once a meal is cooked, all the ingredients – the meat, the veggies, the bay leaves and salt – have been combined like magic into something altogether different. E pluribus unum – out of many, one. And you can eat it! Since you’ve been so careful about planning your concoction, you might actually be able to partake of the meal yourself.

Immersed as we are – ready or not – once again in this holiday season, I’ve decided to see how many ways I can simplify the Holiday Enforced Cheer Machine by creating one mise en place after another. I foresee a dining table cleared off to hold the wrapping paper, the ribbon, the tape, the bows – my mise en place for gift disguising. Before that, I can make one in my car, placing my purse, my reusable bags, my list, and the ads from the Sunday paper, carefully circled and put in order – a mise en place for shopping.

I’m not saying everything has to be planned and executed perfectly. (Feel free to read the “Martha Stewart Living” December issue for that.) Some things, like the handing out and tearing into gifts on Christmas morning, take much of their pleasure from the feeling of throwing caution to the winds. But for those chores that must precede that joyous time, if it’s going to happen at all, a little bit of planning and organizing never hurt.

And when it’s all ready – the gifts purchased, wrapped, and placed under the tree, you can set out a tray of cheese, crackers, and the summer sausage Uncle Albie sent, as well as a piping hot mug of chai, and enjoy your mise en place for, well, what do we call it? Oh, that’s right. Enjoying, for once, The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

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