February 17, 2009

Prepare Your Ingredients!

Ok, show of hands: How many of you start following a recipe at the "instructions", skipping over the "ingredients"?

I admit it: I used to cook this way. Most casserole dishes can be built by the gradual addition of ingredients as your prepare them. 20 minutes later, stir it all up, cover with foil, and throw it in the oven. Voila!

But many of the dishes we make are cooked in multiple, brief stages on the stove top, like stir fries or curries. It is fairly common to see instructions like this:

"Saute onion for 43 seconds, stirring constantly. Next add the garlic and saute for an additional 6.5 seconds, then gradually, but don't stop stirring, add the puréed tomato sauce..."

With instructions like that, your ingredients must be ready to dash in at a moments notice. Sure you might try mincing garlic with one hand while stirring onion with the other hand, but you'll soon realize you have to get your act together *before* you start the actual cooking.

So now we prep, and then we cook. Ingredient prep usually takes longer than the cooking. If you ever prepped 2 pounds of fresh green beans, you know what I'm talking about.

Here is what we do: each ingredient tells the amount and a brief description of what to do with it; mince it, peel it, quarter it, stomp on it, etc. Some ingredients even require some kind of cooking, like toasting almonds; it's like a recipe within a recipe. Each ingredient, after it's prepped, is put into a bowl, plate, mug, or whatever is fitting. I also take a little shortcut and premix ingredients. For example, if the recipe says add the tomatoes and then add the garlic, I will toss the minced garlic into the bowl with the tomatoes.

What we end up with is a line of raw ingredients awaiting their turn in the skillet. Here's a simple example of a recent dish:

Each of these containers go into the pot at different times. The downside, as you can guess, is a lot of dirty dishes.

A side benefit of this technique is that you quickly discover the ingredients you forgot to buy or what you have in the back of the fridge is now green and fuzzy. This prep time gives you a chance to improvise or even rush out to the store. You can't do that very well when you're in the middle of cooking!

There are many ways to optimize this process. If you're pressed for time, some ingredients can be prepped hours or even days in advance. If you can work in the kitchen with your spouse without killing each other, you can share the prep duty, or one can prep while the other starts cooking.

Certainly ingredient prep is boring --chop, slice, peel, scrape off mold-- but those 30 minutes of prep time are really necessary for that 30 seconds of intense cooking.

1 comment:

  1. I use one of those small, electric coffee grinders to grind the various spices in my Indian cooking

    Brother Thomas