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Ask the Chef: Organized but Overwhelmed
Dear Chef Linda,
I make an effort to be organized when it comes to making meals; I shop with a grocery list and plan our meals for the week, but when I get home, I feel overwhelmed trying to get dinner on the table. What can I do to make this process easier so we aren’t calling for take-out, and wasting a fridge full of food every week? Help!
Dear Organized but Ovewhelmed,
First, sit down. What I’m about to say will go against everything you think makes sense. One of the most important steps in reducing kitchen stress is to get organized before you cook anything; and yes, that means slowing down when every fiber of your being is telling you to rush to get dinner on the table.
The French phrase mise-en-place, or “to put things in place,” is religion to professional chefs; without it, no patron would get served. Home cooks should have the same conviction. It could be the most important concept you will ever learn in the kitchen. Quite simply, mise-en-place means that you look at your recipe, pull everything you need to make it, and then prepare your ingredients before you even THINK of firing up the stove. If you need a 1/2 cup of onion, get the onion out, chop it and set it aside. Need 2 cups chopped spinach? Same idea. Within a short time, everything will be washed, chopped and measured and you’ll be ready to cook.
Mise-en-place not only prepares you to cook, but also helps to get you in the right frame of mind to cook. Think about it, when you wake up, are you ready to get on a conference call or lead a team meeting? I know I’m not. I need a period of transition (and a bucket of coffee) to get me ready for the day. Same goes with cooking. You just got home from long day at work. You haven’t had time to unwind, but people are hungry, so you dive right in. Your mind…and spirit haven’t made the transition from “work-you” to “home-you.” No wonder why making dinner doesn’t seem like fun. Feels like another job when you approach it this way.
Do yourself a favor; try it for a week. See if it doesn’t actually make things easier on you. It’s also a good way to get kids or partners to help. Someone can grab all the ingredients, someone can chop, and someone can measure. When that’s all done, the cooking is the fun part. One more tip; when you have a few moments on the weekend – chop up some of the ingredients you are planning to use and store them in containers or plastic bags. For example, if you know you’ll be using onions and garlic during the week, chop them all and store them in the fridge, then portion out what you need when it’s time for mise-en-place. Trust me, if restaurant chefs had to come to work and be ready to cook without having everything already in place, there wouldn’t be any restaurants – or any patrons.
So get ready, get set, cook!