Monday, September 9, 2013

Stress Less in the Kitchen

Cooking can be intimidating, stressful and worrisome for many.  I feel that with a little practice and a couple of go to recipes, anyone can become a more confident cook.  The key to pulling off any recipe is preparation and having your ingredients ready to cook.  This process of kitchen organization called "mise en place" (pronounced MEEZ ahn plahs) is what the pros use to keep their kitchen "lines" in working order during the busy rushes.  Translated "to put in place."  It is one of the first lessons taught to new chefs in culinary school, and there's a reason for it.

Many home cooks make the mistake of jumping right into a recipe with little or no prep, figuring they can chop the garlic while the onions are sauteing.  Then 4 steps into the recipe they discover they needed to reduce some balsamic vinegar before adding it to the dish.  Then all the timing (and flavor) is thrown off.

Perhaps nobody has suggested this idea of prepping before the heat goes on, but it's similar to asking someone to preheat a grill or saute pan before starting to cook.  Your timing will be as good as a professional chef if you have all of your ingredients out, chopped, washed and spices pulled from the pantry.  If you follow mise en place, you will be able to concentrate on how the food is cooking and what it tastes like.

Here are some tips:
1.  Before you start cooking, read the recipe all the way through to the end.
2.  Gather all the ingredients that you need to prepare the recipe.  This will save you from having to ask your significant other to run to the store.
3.  Think about all the steps involved with the process from start to finish.  Most recipes help you by walking you through the steps in order and offering helpful hints for when to multitask using phrases such as, "meanwhile" or "set aside."
4.  Wash all veggies, chop everything that is required and measure out the wet and dry ingredients.
5.  Place ingredients where it would be easy to reach for them while you are cooking.  For example, set the chopping board of veggies near the side of the stove next to the olive oil and spices you will saute them in.  Leave the greens in a colander near the plates you serve them on.

I encourage you to practice this one skill and "put everything into place" before you get started and your dishes will come out better and you will enjoy the act of cooking more than ever.  For my recipe this week, baked polenta with crumbled turkey sausage and a steamed egg, you can practice you mise en place, because if you don't, you'll have burnt eggs or uncooked and crunchy polenta.  Let's get prepping.

Baked Polenta with Crumbled Turkey Sausage 
and a Steamed Egg  
-1 cup of polenta
-3 cups of chicken or veggie stock
-1 cup of milk
-1/4 cup of chopped fresh herbs or your choosing (I used parsley and oregano)
-9 turns of the black pepper mill
-1/4 tsp salt
-1lbs package of lean turkey sausage
-1 cup of salsa
-1 to 2 eggs per person
-1 cup of water

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Oil the bottom of a 9 x 13 inch glass baking dish. Combine all of the first six ingredients into the baking dish.  Using a fork, mix well and settle the polenta evenly throughout the bottom of the dish.  Cover with tinfoil.  Place in the oven for 60 to 80 minutes.  You do not need to stir or do anything else!

Meanwhile, saute the turkey sausage over medium low heat until well done. Cover when cooked and keep warm.

When the polenta is cooked completely, pull it from the oven, keep it covered. Before you start cooking the eggs, warm your salsa, set the table, get the drinks and napkins out and in place.  Warm a plate in the microwave to keep the eggs warm while you cook the whole order.

Turn on the skillet that has a fitting cover to high heat.  While the pan is heating, cut the polenta into 3 by 4 inch squares with a knife.  Serve one slice per plate. Add you fat of choice to the pan (non-stick spray, olive oil, butter) and then the egg or eggs.  Let the bottom of the egg cook completely then add a few tablespoons of water and cover quickly.  This will steam the rest of the egg to your desired doneness.  Remove from the pan and repeat until all eggs are done.

Assemble you plates:  a polenta square is your base, sprinkle a bit of turkey sausage on the top, finish with the egg and finally a dollop of salsa.

I made this dish recently for a family brunch.  Everyone from my foodie of a mother, grandmother who loves butter, stepfather who will eat anything and slightly picky fiancee enjoyed the flavor and texture combinations.  It's a simple dish, but you have to have your timing right.  Good luck chefs!