I love entertaining and making complex dishes involving many steps. Now most people are not like me. They cook less for pleasure than necessity. They’re busy and barely have the time or the desire for entertaining or complicated meals involving many steps and ingredients. But what they don’t know is that cooking is 80 percent logistics and 20 percent skill. The French call this preparation ahead of time mise en place. You assemble all the ingredients and utensils, including the serving dishes, and do all of the cleaning, chopping, grating, and straining before you actually begin to cook. Logistics: It’s the secret that takes the hassle and fear out of cooking.
At the wedding in Cana, there was a big logistics problem. On the third day of the celebration, they ran out of wine. How much had they underestimated? Well, Jesus turned six jars of water holding 20-30 gallons each into wine. That was the amount for just that one day, the third. There must have been a lot of people!
Logistics means planning, organization, and implementation. You read the recipe, including the directions, to find out how to get there—not just what ingredients you need, but what you can do to make the process easy and efficient. You have to read between the lines to figure out the timing, that is, the steps that can be taken ahead of time and how they can be organized.
Take the following classic Southern recipe for Shrimp and Grits.
2 ½ c chicken stock plus water as needed
1 c stone-ground grits
1 ½ lbs. medium shrimp, shelled and deveined
⅔ c sharp cheddar cheese finely grated
½ c Emmenthal or Swiss cheese
Tabasco sauce to taste
1t Worcestershire sauce or to taste
½ red pepper diced
½ c diced crisp bacon
⅔ c scallions finely chopped, including the green
5 cloves garlic minced
Lemon juice to taste (about ½ of a lemon)
2T parsley chopped
Directions: Boil grits in stock 15 minutes uncovered, stirring frequently. Add garlic and salt to taste. Cover and cook over low for 30 minutes until tender (depending on grain), stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Add water as needed. When grits are done, stir in Worcestershire, Tabasco, cheeses, and butter. In skillet, sauté bacon till it begins to brown. Add red pepper and scallions and cook until bacon is fully browned. Add lemon juice and shrimp and cook, tossing until curled and pink—about two minutes. Serve shrimp mixture over grits and sprinkle with parsley. Serves 4.
What’s missing from this recipe are the rules of logistics, the mise en place.
First Rule: Read the recipe through, including the directions, imagining what you actually have to do, such as chopping, cleaning, grating, sautéing, etc. You don’t want to discover, for example, that some part of the recipe needs to marinate for hours or be cooked the day before or needs a special pan you don’t have.
Second Rule: Assemble all the necessary ingredients, pans, and utensils. There’s a sauce pan for the grits and a skillet for the bacon and shrimp mix, a grater for the cheese, knives for chopping, measuring spoons and stirring spoons, etc.
Third Rule: Analyze what the recipe doesn’t tell you: There are two parts to this dish, the grits and a sautéed bacon, pepper, scallion, and shrimp mixture. If you can do two things at once, then you can mince the garlic and grate the cheeses while you cook and stir the grits. But a word of caution: Grits need to be stirred often, and you’ll need to add liquid if it gets too thick. So if you have to watch the grits carefully, you may want to mince the garlic and grate the cheeses first.
Fourth Rule: Timing. Since you’ve already minced the garlic and grated the cheeses, you may think you can sauté the bacon mix while the grits cook. You can. But wait—the shrimp need to be shelled and deveined for the sauté, and the red pepper, scallions, and parsley need to be cleaned and chopped. Why not do that before you even begin cooking the grits? Then, when the grits are nearly ready (in about 45 minutes, but the time is never exact), you can easily and quickly sauté the bacon, add the other prepared ingredients, and the cleaned, deveined shrimp without the grits sticking, burning, or getting cold! Analyzing the recipe and doing prep ahead of time makes the job much easier and the timing just right.
Joanne’s quick tips: To prevent lumps, mix a small amount of grits with cold stock to form a paste. Stir in the rest of the stock before heating on the stove. Polenta--or if you absolutely insist, quick grits--may be substituted for the stone-ground grits.
About shrimp: Many recipes tell you to cook shrimp too long. As soon as they turn pink, they’re done! Remember they will continue to cook even after you turn off the burner. Otherwise be prepared for tough, rubbery shrimp.
Joanne Cutting-Gray, Ph.D., is an author, scholar, and lifelong student of cooking. She lives with her husband in Savannah, Georgia.