Thursday, November 17, 2005

Meezing in Place

Last night was the cooking class I'd signed up for at the New School. Like the one I'd taken last March, it was in the kitchen and dining room of The Inn on 23rd. This one was "Mise en Place," which is pronounced meeze on plaaahhhhhhhhhh and means "the carefully-timed, advance preparation of almost every ingredient needed for the dishes on the menu."

I'm a sucker for those articles in women's magazines that tell you how to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon making enough chicken legs for an army and then freezing them in batches to feed your family for the rest of the Winter. The problem with those meal plans, besides being overambitious, is that the meals themselves tend to be very "white bread." I'm a third-generation New Yorker; to me, garlic is a food group.

This was no problem in last night's class. Instructor Lynn Kutner, who filled in at the last minute for Michael Krondl, mapped out a flavorful menu that included a sauteed chicken dish, stuffed mushrooms and little intensely chocolate cakes. In fact, we started preparing the dessert first so that the cakes wouldn't be redolent of garlic, wine and shallots. The way all of these things had to do with mise en place is that you could stop anywhere along the preparation process and put the ingredients away to continue later, or the next day.

The Inn's kitchen is spacious and well-equipped, but it filled up quickly. There were ten students: Nine women and, that rara avis of recreational cooking classes, A Guy. Plus four teaching assistants who magically whisked away used frying pans, utensils and detritus. We sat and stood around a counter where each participant had about a foot and a half of workspace--my recipe handout kept falling on the floor or becoming seasoned, and an assistant put it on the buffet, where it was kept high and dry for me until the end of the meal.

We were divided into groups of twos, sharing mixing bowls and ingredients, which were passed around the table so quickly that I felt like Lucy and Ethel working in the candy factory. My partner was apparently some sort of ringer; she chopped and mixed with the assurance of Julia Child's child. Later, I found out that she and her friend who had accompanied her had been to several New School cooking classes.

Which isn't a bad idea, because if I took a class more than once every six months, perhaps I wouldn't be self-conscious making a meal in front of other humans. For instance, nobody except my husband had witnessed my skills with a chef's knife, and his reaction has been to flee the kitchen in terror and take both cats with him. But if my fellow participants were any indication, while none of us were Jacques Pepin, none of us were serial killers, either.

Also, when I'm at home I cook in sweats and t's, in happy oblivion about the pigsty I'm making of myself and the soon-to-be-hosed-down kitchen. But with not much personal elbow room, I felt like my mess would infringe on the space of the other students. Fortunately, nobody was paying much attention to me. They were more interested in following Lynn's instructions and in kibitzing and flirting with The Guy. I think I might get similar attention if I signed up for an Auto Repair class, except a) we don't have a car and b) in Manhattan, the other students would be nine women and a guy.

Despite awkwardness and spitting frying pans--apparently, you have to lower chicken pieces into hot oil very slowly--we made a delicious meal. I learned that an accumulation of olive oil, sunflower oil and vegetable shortening keeps your hands moisturized in cold, dry weather. I learned to bake fish in parchment. And the chicken recipe called for coating the meat in a tempura-style batter, which I thought I would hate. When it comes to animal flesh, I'm strictly a grilled girl. But it turned out surprisingly non-greasy and non-doughy, and meltingly tender.

For next term, the "Meals in 30 Minutes" class seems a bit more relevant to the way I actually live. While the course description for the "Mise" class had said, "how to organize and complete advance preparations several days ahead, saving only the final assembly and cooking for the meal itself," most of the things we actually prepared were highly perishable. Fresh fish, for example, should be used the same day. So I felt I was cheated out of "make-ahead" knowledge, and this is what I really need more of in order to make the most out of my time, which is in short supply on weekdays and not much more plentiful on weekends. The take-out counter at the Gourmet Garage is a great place, but less dependency on it can only be a good thing for my weight and my wallet, both.

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