Mushrooms, Chestnuts & Mise En Place
I’ve been thinking about the idea of Mise en Place a lot lately. It’s a kitchen rule, maybe the most important kitchen rule. It means ‘put in place’ but I like to think of it as ‘everything in its place.’ If done well it means that during a three-hour service a cook won’t have to peel, chop, or parboil a thing. He can quickly and methodically assemble dishes one by one, safe in the knowledge that unnecessary prep work isn’t going to drag him away from his station. If done well it makes cooking look effortless. Doing it well is a bitch.
Cooking is sexy. I’ve always believed that. But even for troubled minds like mine the sizzle of a pan is far sexier than peeling and dicing twenty pounds of onions. It takes stamina to work through five hours of prep and it takes vision to see a final product come out of the ramequins of ingredients slowly accreting on the counter. Doing Mise en Place at home, though scaled down, is a lot harder than in a professional kitchen.
Auguste Escoffier built modern kitchen organization around Mise en Place. Cooks get the rule, after they’ve fucked it up a few times and had their chef scream down their necks they know how important Mise en Place is. At home, once I’d chopped my onion I would just want to throw it in a pan. What I didn’t think was how long the potatoes were going to take to peel, chop, and parboil while those onions turn into perfectly diced morsels of carbon in my now useless seventy-five dollar skillet.
It’s a little more than just prep though. At its best, doing Mise en Place is reflective. Without the pressure of burning your onions you can make sure that your garlic is well peeled and that your rosemary hasn’t gone off. You realize what you forgot to buy and adjust the recipe accordingly. You begin to see what you’re cooking in its component parts. You start to think about substitutes, about changing a recipe around and really making it your own. Cooking at its best should be relaxing. Mise en Place lets you be reflective, methodical, and relaxed.
Maybe the best way to describe Mise en Place is by showing one of my favourite stupid-easy side dishes: sautéed mushrooms and chestnuts. It’s a six ingredient, one pan dish. It takes almost no effort, but if everything isn’t on hand it can go south fast.
These mushrooms are a fantastic side, or a nice meaty main for vegetarians. I like them best on a slice of toasted sourdough with a little grated pecorino and some chopped chives.
You will need
· About 1½ dozen white or cremini mushrooms
· Two large shallots
· Three cloves of garlic
· One packet of roasted chestnuts
· 1 sprig each of fresh rosemary and thyme
· 1/4 cup of white wine or chicken stock (or both!)
· (OPTIONAL!) 1 rasher of thick, double-smoked bacon
Start filling your ramequins. First with shallots, diced small and precise. Then minced garlic. Then slice your mushrooms. Chop up roasted chestnuts and then mince up some rosemary and strip a few sprigs of fresh thyme. If you’re using it, cut the bacon into strips.
With all that done, heat oil or butter in a pan, or start cooking your bacon until the fat begins to render. Start sautéing shallots until translucent, then add garlic. Sautee the mushrooms until soft and beginning to brown, add the chestnuts, and herbs and mix well. After about five minutes add your wine or stock, bring to a fast boil and let it reduce. Salt and pepper to taste.
Stupid easy. Now if I had decided to sauté each ingredient as I prepped it…well the world probably wouldn’t end but things would be singed, dices would be uneven, and I would be stressed.
So why have I been thinking about Mise en Place? This is going to sound weird. March and April were paper season at the University of Toronto. For a history student that meant hours and hours of research. It meant forcing myself not to start writing, even when I thought I had enough information. The endless note-taking, the tedious outlining, that’s Mise en Place. It means that when you write it looks, and feels, pretty effortless. It wasn’t, but as with so much else it’s the last minute assembly that people see and people judge. Make sure it looks sexy.