Every two weeks, my devoted brother and I get together at either of our apartments and practice cooking. The person hosting chooses the menu and buys the ingredients and we get together to cook. It's a lot of fun and a great way to practice on some more difficult recipes you've wanted to try, if you've got a cooking buddy around!
Anyways, last night we attempted crab cakes because Dan always wanted to try to make them at home. Crab cakes also happen to be one of my favorite dishes.
Dan was going to come over an hour later than we had planned because of work, so I decided I would use the new-found time to set up our mise en place, a french cooking term, as so many cooking terms are, which means "everything in its place". Essentially.
This is one of my favorite cooking concepts if you have ever developed Frantic Cooking Syndrome. This is when you start to cook a recipe you're not familiar with and one thing goes wrong, followed by EVERYTHING going wrong, followed by ordering pizza.
Mise en place means that you get absolutely everything in the kitchen ready before you apply a bit of heat to your meal. Such as last night, as I waited for Dan: I got out all the pots and pans and placed them where they would be, I measured out all the ingredients, such as the rice, the seasonings, the mayonnaise, and had them all sitting there ready to be used. This is especially important in such a small kitchen as we have:
See all the counter space? Right. It's hard enough to work in there in general without adding unpredictable timing on my stove that only gets hot when you put it on HIGH.
Now, getting back to the dinner last night, I did my best to set up everything as neatly as possible but I made two mistakes:
1. All the chopping that I had saved for Dan - chopping being his favorite part - was for the rice pilaf, which would take longer to cook than the crab cakes.
2. Somehow, I didn't read the recipe carefully enough. Alton Brown says that when attempting a new recipe you should go into another room, other than your kitchen, and read the recipe while sitting down to avoid such blunders. But I didn't do this, dear reader, and therefore I ended up adding A CUP of mayonnaise to the crab cakes, when there shouldn't have been any. At all. I mean, the recipe said HOLD THE MAYO and I said,"How about A CUP?" Needless to say, the crab cakes wouldn't form and when we put them in the pan they burned. Exhibit A, my friends.
So. What did Bonnie learn from this horrendous situation (although the pilaf was just lovely and the garlic roasted asparagus, as always, a triumph)? It PAYS to be organized, because (and I didn't tell Joe this before, but I guess now he'll know) the pound of lump crab meat I bought cost $18. THAT'S A LOT OF MONEY, especially these days, and it all went into my trash can, completely inedible.
I know what you're thinking. Here you are trying to find a fast way to cook yourself delicious, wholesome meals at home and I am telling you to add all these extra steps. But, no, I practice an abbreviated mise en place in my kitchen that really makes a difference in my cooking. 5 minutes at the beginning could save you 30 minutes at the end.
1. Before doing anything, read the recipe straight through in another room. Do this standing still, without any distractions.
2. Take out all of the pots and utensils you'll need and place them where they'll be used. The knife with the cutting board on the counter and the pot, with its lid standing by, and its wooden spoon next to it. This avoids your steak almost cooking to perfection in a frying pan and, as you lean down to get your next pot for your vegetables, you realize it's been buried in the back behind a thousand things, and by the time you wrestle it out, your steak is now overcooked.
3. Organize the tasks by longest-to-cook, to shortest-to-cook. Get that pot of water boiling for your pasta before anything else, or you're going to be waiting and annoyed later. Especially if your stove sucks, like mine does.
4. Know yourself - if you stink at chopping onions, as I do, chop them first, when there's not much else going on besides boiling water, perhaps. Then you can go slow and avoiding cutting yourself, which REALLY slows down the cooking process, I assure you. I also like to measure things like rice or spices that I have a tendency to spill in my small kitchen.
5. Have a patient spouse (Joe never gets annoyed with me about waiting to eat, even if it gets close to 8:00PM because I've messed up, which does wonders for the marriage...) and if you're cooking for yourself, be patient with yourself. You are learning how to cook and, like anything, you're going to make a mistake once in a while. Which is why...
6. Have a backup. If it's ordering pizza, so be it, but better yet perhaps is leftovers from the successful meal you made the other day.
Friends, my crab cakes might have been a delicious lunch for me today instead of sitting in the dumpster in the parking lot of my apartment complex, $18 of my hard-earned money down the drain. Now, you can't learn if you don't try, so it was all for a better purpose, but taking the time, just 1 or 2 minutes before I got started, could have very well saved me money for a tank of gas.