WND – For His Heart Was PureSeptember 23, 2010
Most dinners, no matter how simple they are, seem to produce a disproportionate number of dishes. Even just grilled chicken with greens and roasted sweet potatoes, which is close to the easiest dinner I can think of, requires two pans and a baking sheet to cook. That doesn’t even take into account the prep tools (grater, knife, dish to marinate the chicken, chopping board), or the serving dishes. The cooking part of dinner I quite enjoy, the cleaning up portion of the evening less so. Thus, the meal that can be made in one pot, contains all the elements of a balanced meal – protein, starch, vegetable – and, as a bonus, can be made in 45 minutes or less is the holy grail of week night cooking.
In a strange confluence of events, Pete Wells wrote an article in the NYT last week about the unnecessary nature of mise en place for home cooks – riffing off an interview that Sara Moulton gave where she admitted that she eventually realized that she was writing recipes like they were for restaurant cooks, but felt hypocritical because she wasn’t cooking like that at home. Then on Sunday I watched a rerun of America’s Test Kitchen and listened to Christopher Kimball proselytize about mise en place. I wrinkled my nose and flapped my hands at the TV in irritation, which caused my roommate looked up from her computer and raise an eyebrow at me. Usually I reserve impotent rage at the TV for Presidential debates and Sandra Lee, but listening to Christopher Kimball go on about absolute necessity of having everything measured, chopped and ready before you begin cooking is also worthy of my exasperation.
For the record, I recognize that a mise en place is necessary for restaurant chefs who are going to be required to turn out dozens of meals consistently and rapidly. However, for the rest of us who are going to be feeding maybe six people on any given night, it’s sort of a waste of time. I understand that the point of a mise en place is to make sure that you don’t get halfway through a recipe and realize that you are out of some key ingredient, like flour or chickpeas or chicken stock. It’s also so that you don’t have to arrest your cooking process halfway through while you go back and chop the tomatoes you hadn’t realized you were going to need to throw into the pot in step 4.
On the other hand, isn’t this what reading the recipe through beforehand is designed to prevent? I had a math teacher in middle school who was fond of including five line long mathematical equations that ended with x0 on tests to prove a point about the advisability of reading through an equation before you started trying to work it out. Reading the recipe through first is the real life equivalent of not spending 20 minutes working through five lines of brackets and multiplications and subtractions only to get to the x0 at the end. You read the recipe first so that you don’t get blind sided by unexpected tomatoes, or a three hour resting period after the third step.
This isn’t to say that I’ve never reached for an ingredient and come up empty (because how is it possible that I was out of butter? or salt? or some other really obvious ingredient?) and had to readjust the recipe on the fly. But in those cases all a mise en place would have accomplished is to make me adjust the recipe earlier on in the process. By the time I get around to cooking dinner I’ve walked home from the T, washed my face, changed into pajamas and fed the cat. Not much short of an emergency is going to get me to leave my house again, and the jalapeno that has mysteriously gone missing between the grocery store and my fridge emphatically does not qualify. I’ll substitute some red pepper flakes and call it a day.
In the recipe below if I did a full mise en place before I started cooking I would slice the sausage, mince the garlic, chop the onion, and peel and slice the sweet potatoes and potatoes all before I added olive oil to my pan and turned on the heat. I would probably spend 20-30 minutes chopping and produce 4-5 dirty bowls that would need to be washed later. Alternatively, I can mince the garlic and chop the onion while the sausage is browning. I can then sauté the garlic and onion while I peel and chop the potatoes, and by the time I’ve finished doing that the onions have softened and I’m ready to add the potatoes to the pot. Even better, all I have to wash up is one dirty knife, a chopping board and the bowl that I’m reserving the sausage in, and I’ll get to sit down to eat dinner half an hour earlier.
All of this to say that unless you’re making stir fry, or having a neat line of bowls on your counter really turns you on (in which case don’t let me stop you) there is no sane reason why you have to have everything chopped before you can begin cooking. And, in the case of this particular meal, a mise en place will, in fact, completely defeat the magic of the one pot, 45 minute dinner.
Sweet Potato & Sausage Soup
Sweet Potato and Sausage Soup
(makes 6-8 servings, depending on how hungry you are – I usually make a third of the recipe for the two of us an d end up with half a serving leftover.)
2 Tbsp olive oil
10-11 oz fully cooked smoked sausage*, cut in half lengthwise, and then into ¼” slices
2 medium onions, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced
2 lb sweet potatoes, peeled, cut into quarters lengthwise and then into ¼” slices
1 lb potatoes, peeled, cut into quarters lengthwise and then into ¼” slices
6 cups chicken broth (if you’re using homemade chicken stock you might need to cut this with some water)**
9 oz fresh spinach
Heat olive oil in heavy large pot over medium-high heat. Add sausage; cook until brown, stirring often, about 8 minutes. Transfer sausage a bowl and reserve (if you’re using a very fatty sausage you may want to drain them on paper towels, and possibly drain some of the rendered fat from your pan).
Add onions and garlic to pot and cook until translucent, stirring often, about 5 minutes.
Add all potatoes and cook until beginning to soften, stirring often, about 12 minutes.
Add broth; bring to boil, scraping up browned bits. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until potatoes are soft, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes.
Using potato masher, mash some of potatoes in pot.
Add the browned sausage to soup. Stir in spinach and simmer just until wilted, about 5 minutes.
* I usually use turkey kielbasa. You could also use a chorizo which gives the soup some kick. If you lived somewhere that you could get hold of gelderse rookworst then you should absolutely use that.
** When I make this for the two of us I make a generous 1/3 of the recipe, but I up the amount of stock to almost 3 cups, but I found when I made the full recipe that 6 cups was about the right amount of liquid to use.
Strictly speaking you don’t need the bread because the soup already has potatoes in it, but what is soup without bread to dip in it I ask you.