Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Mise en place and Low Country "Limpin' Susan"

Mise en place for "Limpin' Susan"
I'm not generally highly compulsive about cooking.  I rarely follow a recipe, and never exactly.  I'll envision a dish in my head and start throwing things together, or if I'm exploring an ethnic cuisine (or a combination), I might grab a few cookbooks and - more and more in recent hears - turn to Chef Google for inspiration, rarely if ever picking up a full recipe but mining my "hits" for ideas and picking up a concept here, a principle there, a specific ingredient over there, and before I know it, dinner is done.

But one point at which my instinctive sense of order comes to bear is the "mise en place."  "Put in place" in English translation, pronounced "Meez ahn plahss" in my fractured French, this is the simple practice of chopping, measuring, just plain finding and organizing the ingredients I'll need in neat little bowls and plates.

Part of this is simple common sense: When you're firing a quick saute in a super-hot skillet and your oil is just below the smoke point, you really don't want to have to leave it while you grab an onion out of the fridge, peel and chop the thing.

But it's more.  Something about getting all my ingredients organized and set up in attractive, colorful rows appeals to my spirit, and in some way that I can't really explain shows up in the "soul" that I bring to the dish.  It's sort of like Chinese food tasting better with chopsticks (I swear this is true) or hot buttered corn tasting better on the cob than off.

Tonight I looked over the garden bounty and the pantry and decided to make a sort of pilaf out of basmati rice, onions, garlic, a green pepper and a small bucketload of fresh okra and a big juicy tomato from the garden.

There's really no more recipe than that.  Saute the chopped aromatics and sliced okra until they're good and brown. Then put in rinsed and soaked basmati rice, chopped tomato, seasonings and some water, and simmer, stirring and adding water, until it's fluffy and hot.

The Limpin' Susan, ready to serve!
This seemed sort of Cajun or maybe West African in a way, with maybe a hint of Southwest Asian pilaf or Italian risotto; but when I searched "okra pilaf" I found that it's also a Carolina Low Country dish jokingly named "Limpin' Susan" in honor of its sort-of cousin, Hoppin' John.  Since Hoppin' John brings good luck, or so it's said, on New Year's Day, the waning days of summer seemed like a reasonable time to try this dish.

The verdict: A keeper. And with the okra still coming on strong, I'll probably do it - or something like it - again.

So, tell me, when you're cooking a dish with more than two or three ingredients to keep track of, do you do a mise en place? Why or why not?