Sunday, September 22, 2013

Mise en Place

There is a dish that I like to prepare that consists of green beans and chicken cooked in a marinated bean curd sauce. The marinated bean curd comes in a jar. To make the sauce, you fish a couple of cubes of bean curd out of the jar and mash them up. This forms the base for a nice, creamy sauce. It couldn't be easier... or tastier. When prepared properly, the green beans, chicken, and sauce meld together perfectly. I also like to add crushed garlic sliced lengthwise, not minced. The garlic isn't browned in oil, but cooked slowly in the sauce so that it becomes soft and mild. Getting a soft slice of garlic is a real treat.

This dish is very warm and homey, and it can be prepared with minimal prep in one sauté pan. However, for some reason, the dish hadn't been turning out quite right for me lately. While all of the individual components seemed fine, they weren't melding. And nothing that I tried was able to fix the problem.

Two weeks ago, I decided to make the dish again, but this time, I would do my mise en place properly. Mise en place is a French phrase which means "putting in place." Chefs use the term to refer to the preparation they do before cooking. As Anthony Bourdain likes to say, "Prior preparation prevents piss-poor performance."

I trimmed the ends off the green beans, crushed and sliced my garlic, sliced my chicken breast, and then mixed the sliced chicken breast with two cubes of the marinated bean curd, making sure that the bean curd was completely mashed up and thoroughly coating the chicken. I did all of this before putting my pan on the stove and heating it. Once the pan was hot, I added a little oil and sautéed the chicken until the slices of chicken breast were cooked through. At this point, the marinated bean curd had formed a thick sauce with the oil and juices from the chicken on the bottom of the pan.

I pulled the slices of chicken breast out of the pan and then added the crushed, sliced garlic. I turned down the heat so that the garlic wouldn't brown and let it cook for about 30 seconds. When the garlic was just starting to cook through and get soft, I added the trimmed green beans (cut into 2-inch long pieces) and stir fried them until they were also coated in the marinated bean curd sauce. I then added water, covered the pan, and brought everything to a boil. The amount of water that you add is crucial. You want to add just enough water so that when the green beans are done cooking, almost all of the water has boiled off and you are left with the right amount of sauce. The cooked chicken gets mixed back into the green beans and the sauce at the very end, and the whole thing is served over rice.

The dish turned out perfectly, and I suddenly realized that not doing my mise en place had been screwing me up. The key to the dish is mashing up the marinated bean curd and sautéing it in oil for a little while, and then making sure that it coats each component. This brings out the flavor of the bean curd and integrates the dish. Because I had been prepping my ingredients as I was cooking instead of doing my mise en place ahead of time, I had been doing everything out of order. I would slice and sauté my chicken breast, and only start trimming the green beans once the chicken was in the pan. The chicken would finish cooking before all of the green beans were trimmed, so I would buy myself some time by pulling the chicken, adding water to the pan, and bringing the water to a boil. Once the water was boiling, I would add the trimmed green beans and stir in the cubes of marinated bean curd.

Failure to do a proper mise en place reflected a lack of caring on my part. I may have been putting food into my stomach, but I was not taking any pride or pleasure in it. I could argue that prepping while cooking is more efficient, but that doesn't really stand up when ten minutes of prep is the difference between an okay dish and a really good dish, or between a rushed and distracted cook and a calm and focused cook. If I really want to multitask while cooking, I can always tidy up my station or wash a few dishes.

In my new way of being, I'm trying to be intentional and in the moment. If I am going to do something, then I'm going to do it and not do fifty million other things at the same time. Part of this is separating work from play, which means being able to turn work mode on and off at will. That has always been difficult for me because so much of my work requires substantial pre-thinking. If I am going to focus exclusively on work in my work time, then I need to come to work prepared to be productive. It also means figuring out ways to trigger my pre-thinking so that I'm not waiting helplessly for it to happen serendipitously.

I have learned a few things about my mental mise en place this month while experimenting with my schedule:

  • Knowing that I have a work period coming up at 4pm causes me to do more focused pre-thinking earlier in the day and even the previous evening. My brain knows that it is going to have to be productive and it wants to be prepared. Forcing my brain to wait until 4pm instead of beginning work immediately builds anticipation.
  • My brain will do pre-thinking for work during my play time, but only when my brain is free to wander. If I am mindlessly doing some dishes, my brain will pre-think, but it'll stop and snap back into the moment if a colorful butterfly flits by the window. It's a bit like solving problems in your sleep.
  • My brain thinks better, including pre-thinking, when I am more active during my play time. Being out-and-about and active during my play time is more energizing in general.
  • The kinds of problems that my brain works on during these unstructured pre-thinking sessions seem to be more practical, or technical, in nature. I'm not making large conceptual leaps. I'm doing the smaller, more focused tasks that I could have been doing whenever I got stuck but tended to put off instead. Hopefully, this is clearing the underbrush for those large conceptual leaps to happen in the near future.

I am still struggling with tasks where progress is iterative, and pre-thinking and doing are tightly coupled. For those kinds of tasks, I feel that the key will be identifying my optimal conditions for pre-thinking and then intentionally carving out time and space for it.

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