Don’t get me wrong. It is all well and good to have mise en place bowls — which are the little cute bitsy-size bowls made of glass or metal, usually, that cooks use to organize the stuff they’re going to use in small amounts while they are cooking. Online recipes, especially those little video ones you see on Facebook all the time, always show all the ingredients for something lined up in mise en place bowls. Here is one bowl with your teaspoon of cinnamon, another with your teaspoon of cumin, another with your tablespoon of coriander, another one with your half teaspoon of salt. Sometimes you see these presentations of mise en place bowls and it’s so pretty you just have to hold a scented hanky to your eyes, it’s so affecting, it’s like a painting, it’s so lovely. But it is also true that using mise en place bowls makes for a hell of a lot of little bitty bowls to wash.
Look at this, for an example. This is a link to a Blue Apron recipe. https://www.blueapron.com/recipes/chicken-cacciatore-with-fettuccine-pasta-mushrooms
Blue Apron is a service that charges you a bunch of money so that you can have delivered to your door a box of ingredients, pre-measured and ready to go, as I understand it, so that you can cook a nice homemade meal without having to go grocery shopping. I know a woman who is a subscriber to this service but observes, “It’s still a pain. And I don’t have all those little bowls.” I screech, “You don’t need the little bowls to cook the meal!” but she doesn’t care. Somehow, in her mind, she has to have the little bowls to have things Work Right. Because that’s how Blue Apron shows you how to use their product. I pointed out that she could buy mise en place bowls, and that they are, indisputably, cute and would be fun to buy; or that, alternatively, she could just use whatever little bowls she has around, and it would still work fine. “But then you have to wash all those bowls!” she moaned. Well, it’s true: if you dirty a bowl, you have to wash it. But the thing is: most home cooks aren’t doing anything that really requires the use of mise en place bowls. It is useful to have them in a photo essay describing how a recipe is put together, so that the visually-minded novice home cook has a mental image of what they need (“oh, so that’s what a tablespoon of cinnamon looks like”) but it’s not like you get arrested if you don’t use mise en place bowls.
The fact is, there’s a learning curve to cooking that doesn’t perhaps get discussed as much as it should. The novice cook doesn’t have to start with a book or recipe labeled “E-Z Italian Recipes” and assume that he or she is doomed if they look at Marcella Hazan; at the same time, expecting the novice cook to, as Laurie Colwin says, waltz into the kitchen with a copy of Edwardian Glamour Cooking Without Tears and expect a decent meal to result is sure to result in at least an emotional disaster. Cookbooks and online recipes are, whether or not they expressly say so, targeted toward different skill and interest levels, and these should be assessed and respected.
I remember clearly when, in 1988, as someone who had zero interest in cooking, someone who had a deep love of cooking and entertaining told me that I must buy The Silver Palate Cookbook. I was just missing out if I didn’t make Chicken Marbella. And I remember sitting down in the bookstore and looking through it and going, “Are you kidding me?” I saw all these references to creme fraiche, an ingredient I knew I would never buy, and demands for the use of pieces of kitchen equipment I didn’t own, many of which I don’t own to this day, mind you. It was all so ludicrous. The idea that this was someone’s idea of a 101-level cookbook was madness — and yet, thousands and thousands of well-intentioned people gave this book as a gift to young people setting up their first apartment, as a wedding gift…. and I imagine that thousands and thousands of people attempted Chicken Marbella, made some tough chicken with weird mushy prunes, and said, “Fuck this,” which is why in the 1990s, working in a used bookstore, we were always being offered barely used copies of The Silver Palate Cookbook. It’s a useful book if you are already comfortable in the kitchen. For the novice? It’s just painful and intimidating and annoying. A much more reasonable gift would have been a copy of The Joy of Cooking, which is a book that contains recipes both insanely complicated and ridiculously simple. There is, literally, something in it for everyone. And they never make you feel bad for not having mise en place bowls.
These days, because so many people rely on the internet for their recipe searches (i.e., they’re getting their recipes from photo-heavy blogs, not like this one), and so many cookbooks have elaborately staged color photographs of the recipes being laid out, prepared, and served, we have an over-ambitious, unrealistic sense of what our cooking should look like, in terms of process and result. The people who maintain beautiful, inspiring food blogs (I don’t mean me; I mean, people like Mimi Thorisson or whoever is out there that has a nice supply of mise en place bowls) are in the business of making sure that the images of their cooking process are perfect. That’s part of the point. It’s not just about “This would make a good meal.” It’s that all of these are, at some level, lifestyle magazines. And I guess it’s nice to look at, sure, but it can have a dampening effect on the reader/viewer who innocently went online to figure out how to make chicken cacciatore or salade Nicoise, things that aren’t in fact hard to make, at all, but are easily presented in such a way that a novice cook might be scared right into calling for some Indian takeout.
You don’t need mise en place bowls. You can cook very good meals without laying out your spices and herbs in seventeen perfect little bowls around your big mixing bowl. Your mixing bowl could, in fact, not be a bowl at all, but be the stock pot you also use when you cook your 89 cent box of totally un-chic spaghetti. How do I know this? Because — while it’s true I own a lot of mixing bowls, all given to me as gifts — the “bowl” I use to bake bread (where I mix the dough initially, and then let it sit and rise) is also the 7 quart pot I use for making spaghetti. It’s just a big metal pot with a lid. It’s not fancy. It’s just there, and it works. My mise en place bowls, when I feel called to use something like that, are the same bowls I serve ice cream out of on lazy weekend afternoons when we all need a treat. They’re just little bowls I have around. And in the days before I had no dishwasher, I swear on all that is holy, it wasn’t a big deal to wash them; now that I have a dishwasher, it’s even less of a big deal.
Saint Colwin wrote about kitchen equipment, and how people get all worked up over having just the right gear, but that most of the time, there’s really no need for such agonies. It’s really true. There are certain pieces of equipment you have to have to achieve a few specific goals; it is, undeniably, hard to make true madeleines without a madeleine pan. But if you just want a madeleine-flavored cooky, you could make them in muffin tins, or as drop cookies, if you wanted to. No one is stopping you. You don’t need mise en place bowls to make Cincinnati chili, the recipe I make most often that calls for more than three spices. And you know how I handle organizing the spices, which do have to be added to the pot in a fairly organized manner, to be sure that they cook properly and don’t burn?
I do this.
I look at the list of ingredients, which is long:
1 Tbsp canola oil
2 cups diced onions
1 clove garlic, minced
2 Tbsp tomato paste
2 Tbsp chili powder
1 Tbsp dried oregano
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp salt
3/4 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp allspice
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 cups tomato sauce
2 Tbsp cider vinegar
2 tsp dark brown sugar
1 1/2 lbs lean ground beef
And then I do this: I cut up the onions and I put them into the pot. While they sauté, I prep the garlic, and add it to the pot.
Then I get one of my ice cream bowls and in it I put the chili powder, the oregano, the cinnamon, the salt, the black pepper, and the allspice.
I squeeze the tomato paste straight from the tube into the pot. I dump the entire bowl of spices into the pot. I pour the vinegar straight from the bottle into the pot. The brown sugar is spooned directly into the pot from the plastic box where I keep the brown sugar, usually with a soup spoon, not a measuring spoon, because it really doesn’t matter. Then I add the tomato sauce (i.e., open a can of crushed tomatoes and dump it into the pot) and the ground beef (i.e., unwrap the package of meat and put it into the pot) and the chicken broth (or water, as the case may be), which is probably poured from a measuring cup, but who knows, I may just pour it from the teakettle or the tub where I’ve been storing the chicken broth in the fridge for the last week. I can eyeball two cups of liquid. It’s not that big a deal.
This means that the prep equipment to be washed, after setting up the Cincinnati chili, is this: a knife; a cutting board; a soup spoon; an ice cream bowl. Four objects. The only one of them that can’t go in the dishwasher is the knife (you don’t put knives in the dishwasher, period. Got it?). If I used a measuring cup for water, I just set it in a rack to dry. Painless.
If I used mise en place bowls and showed you how to do this a la Blue Apron: there would be a knife, a cutting board, several measuring spoons, and possibly as many as 14 mise en place bowls. Which is a lot of little bowls. I’d be annoyed if I had to clean up 14 little bowls (ok, the meat would admittedly require a larger bowl). But it’s just not necessary! What is necessary, to cook efficiently, is to read the recipe and really absorb what steps you have to take with which ingredients, and when. Cooking is a flow chart, and a well-written recipe will be clear and explain in concise terms which actions you take at which junctures in the cooking process. No cookbook is going to seriously insist that you have mise en place bowls. And no one should be intimidated out of the kitchen because they don’t have such things.
Forget the mise en place bowls. Just read the recipe carefully, put a pot on the stove, and start cooking. Don’t worry about pretty, don’t worry about not having a mandoline. Just put the pot on the stove and start cooking. Then you’ll get to be all smug about not paying for takeout, and about how you cleaned up the kitchen in ten minutes. As someone with a fancy website or two has said, “And that’s a good thing.”