musing about mise-en-place

If you know me well then you know I love to cook.

When I cook, one of the things I do is based on what professional chefs call mise en place.

Take yesterday for example. I was cooking a ragu for the family; it wasn’t gramigna alla salsiccia, my usual favourite, because I couldn’t get the gramigna and didn’t have time to make the pasta from fresh. So I got some fresh egg spaghetti instead … especially since my grandson adores spaghetti. The two-year-old makes the demolition of spaghetti an art form, as only two-year-olds can.

But I stayed true to making the ragu a salsiccia of sorts. And I wanted to make sure the sauce was allowed to cook for at least six hours, preferably more like eight. So I got started yesterday morning, and the first thing I did was this:

I laid out the ingredients. You can’t see the sausage meat or the pork mince or the beef mince (they’re all still in the fridge) nor can you see the milk (which was keeping the meat company in the fridge, in separate compartments of course).

I try and do it every time I cook; it’s something that professional chefs do. I’m lucky enough to have visited many great chefs at work in their kitchens, and privileged to call a number of them good friends. If they think something’s a good idea, whom am I to argue?

I find the whole process of preparing the mise-en-place instructive, often uplifting, sometimes even cathartic. Preparing the ingredients by hand gets you involved in the cooking in ways that you just couldn’t otherwise. For example, you get to really know the aroma released by a herb when you crush or tear it by hand; you get to feel the texture of the soffrito ingredients, a feeling that helps you figure out when they are truly soffrito, under-fried. And if you’re like me, you graze not-quite-absentmindedly on the leftovers while you peel, chop and crush. By the time you’ve laid all the ingredients out you have a heightened sense of the smell, taste and texture of the dish.

From a practical viewpoint, you get to perform a visual check, a quick way to confirm that everything is in its place and that there’s a place for everything. So there’s no oopsing and traipsing off to get the missing ingredient, you can proceed serenely.

There’s also something else. If you do this every time you cook a particular dish, you get a real feel for proportion, for the relationships between the various ingredients. When you couple this “proportion” knowledge with the “smell, taste and texture” from the process of preparation, you have something very powerful: you can experiment with accentuating or diminishing the character of the dish in subtle ways, because you know something about how they fit together. You know it deep inside you.

I love music but wouldn’t call myself a musician. A crass amateur guitarist at best. When I see real musicians, I know they feel their way about a piece of music in a similar way: they know, instinctively, what goes with what, and how they can vary things, the proportions, the sequences, the lot. I have no such feel for music. Even though I love music, I love musical instruments, I love listening to music, I love going to concerts. Even though I have good friends (including close relatives) who are really talented. (For example, I’m at the Dylan concert on Tuesday, and watching  my nephew’s band Parekh and Singh a week or two later. Check them out. Really looking forward to both events).

When you’re cooking something like a ragu, there’re a few added benefits. You can wash and clear away all the utensils while you’re putting the sauce through its early paces, as it does its egg-larva-pupa-imago transformation. Which looks a bit like this, going clockwise from top left:

I don’t taste the sauce while it’s in the first two quadrants; I need to be sure the meat is cooked sufficiently before I intervene. But I smell it all the way. For sure. And I stir it regularly to get a sense of the texture. If interventions are required, the earlier I know about it the better.

By the time the sauce is ready for the taste test I will have laid the table, set out drinks, put away the preparation utensils and started getting together the serving dishes and ladles and spoons and suchlike. There’s a variant of the mise-en-place at this point, when you get to do visual checks on the empty serving dishes. Parmesan? Check. Pasta? Check. Salad? Check. Kevin? Kevin!

Yes, cooking like this can be edifying, uplifting, sometimes even cathartic.

But it’s not just about cooking. I found myself doing something very similar when I went travelling. I would lay out the things I needed, first in a list, then in a visual presentation, then get going. Flying out early tomorrow morning? Pack and get clothes out tonight. That sort of thing.

There’s something about this whole discipline that I like thinking about when it comes to getting things done. The overall population of tasks. What’s mandatory, what’s optional. The relationships and proportions. Subgroups and dependencies. What you can vary and when, in what proportion. The effect it will have. The need to test regularly. The knowledge of how to act on the feedback. The minimum time. The maximum time. The optimal time.

What mise en place does for me is to remind me about the power of the senses in all this. How sight and sound and smell and touch help me. And what that means in the context of things other than cooking. The “muscle memory” of getting things done. The synaesthetic aspects, the sanity checks, the smell tests, all of which come from practice and observation and learning.

The principal reason I cook is because I enjoy cooking. And eating. And serving others what I’ve prepared.

But there are other things I learn at the same time. Which makes it all so pleasurable.

There’s something happening here

There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware

I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind

It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

Buffalo Springfield, For What It’s Worth

People keep telling me Twitter is dead. And yet.

When I woke up this morning I saw that a number of friends had DMed me overnight. That in itself was not unusual. What was unusual was that a handful of them had pointed me to a particular conversation that was happening on twitter:

 

There’s something happening here.

I’d never heard of Pookleblinky before today.

And I’m very glad that some of my friends bothered to point me towards this conversation.

For all this to have happened, a few things had to be true. I had to be connected to people who knew my interests. I had to be connected to people who had the time and inclination to tell me when something that would interest me surfaced somewhere. There had to be a “somewhere” where conversations like the one started by Pookleblinky could be formed, shared, expanded.

There are many social networks. There are many places where such conversations take place, where many people can participate in those conversations, and where the conversations can be shared. There are better and better tools to be used to find and to recommend such conversations.

But.

What happened overnight has an elegance and a simplicity that will endure.

When I want bursty single-topic conversations with meaningful contribution by a decent cross-section of people, unpolluted by off-topic rants,  and often embedded with links to “long” or TL;DR material (for those interested in delving into a topic) Twitter remains the place to go to.

There’s still something happening here.

What it is ain’t exactly clear.

 

 

 

Thinking about cooking and about getting things done

I love cooking.

One of my signature dishes is “spag bol“. Except the pasta I use is not spaghetti. And the sauce I make is not what most people would consider to be bolognese. Think of it as the Trigger’s Broom of cooking.

If I wanted to be precise I would call the  dish gramigna alla salsiccia. Years ago I spent time in Bologna, asking to be served ragu in maybe a dozen restaurants. Most of them served me  gramigna alla salsiccia. And what was good enough for the people of Bologna was good enough for me.

The experience of spending that time in Bologna opened my eyes to looking more carefully at how the meat sauce and the pasta differed by region, and for that matter why they differed. The more time I spent investigating the sauces and the pastas, the more fascinated I became by the whole thing.

I guess it was only a matter of time before I had to try and build a model for myself, one that spanned across the regions, one that represented at the very least a crude abstraction of all that was involved. Trying to do that made me think, not just about cooking the dish, but about the relevance of the process to other things I think about.

The first is about the time taken to do anything.

Visiting the kitchens of the restaurants in Bologna, talking to the chefs, I learnt that there was quite some flexibility in the time taken to cook the ragu. Most recommended at least four hours; some said eight if possible. At least one suggested I start the previous night, and let it simmer all night. For dinner the next day. But all of them agreed that the very minimum was around 45 minutes, and that too only if pushed; their preferred minimum was two hours.

45 minutes. 8 hours or even overnight. Quite a range.

I grew up in a family whose livelihood was journalism. It didn’t matter what was done, or not done, during the week; what mattered was that the issue had rolled off the presses in time to be franked for posting in the early hours of Saturday, around 4am. That was the deadline. No excuses.

Most things we do have a “maximum time”, a time by which something has to be done.

John Seely Brown, someone I have great respect and fondness for, said something very relevant to this debate many years ago. How long does it take for a four-year-old to become a five-year-old? One year.

Many things we do also have a “minimum time”, a time before which something can’t be done.

When I’m cooking the ragu, I need to know both these times, the minimum as well as the maximum. Once I know these, I can approach the rest of the job with confidence.

Whatever the job, you then have to lay the foundations in order to do it well. For ragu this consists of preparing the odori and the battuto so as to make the soffrito. The things that provide the aroma (the odori) combined with the things that are beaten up (the battuto) that are then “underfried” (the soffrito) in olive oil, until translucent, to form the base. Here, a little practice helps. Onions, garlic, shallots, fennel, parsley, basil, and bay leaf can give the aroma, while carrots and celery get used to regulate the flavour, the “sweetness”. You don’t have to use all the odori; but you should have the carrots and the celery chopped fine. Most people use a simple rule of thumb: the chopped onions are about as much as the celery and the carrots taken together.

Whatever the dish, whatever the job, it’s worth knowing the choices you have in building the foundations, why you have them, how to combine them, how to test them, how to use the feedback to refine the output, as many times as needed. Iteration is important even for the foundations.

Then you come to the meat. For this dish it’s sausage meat, the salsiccia. If you can’t be bothered to make the salsiccia the hard way, and if you can’t get salsiccia easily, then a 1:1 ratio of beef mince to pork mince will suffice. If pork is not your thing then substitute lamb. If meat is not your thing then making a meat sauce is probably not your thing either, though in theory you could use alternative sources of protein. But I’ve never tried that for a ragu.

It’s important at this stage to “seal” the meat, even though it’s minced. Ed Yourdon will probably call it high cohesion and loose coupling. David Weinberger will probably say “small pieces loosely joined”. They’d both be right. Sealing the meat ensures it doesn’t crumble into goop. The soft slightly oily translucent foundation helps with that sealing process and imparts additional flavour and aroma. Gently.

Once the meat is sealed, there’s a decision to make. Are you going red or gold? I was quite surprised to see that the ragu I was served in Bologna was usually golden in colour, a gold flecked with brown, rather than the red of the meat sauces I was used to. That was because the gramigna alla salsiccia route was based on white wine, the slightest whiff of chopped tomato, and optionally even some milk or cream; whereas the classic red ragu route was based on red wine and a more generous helping of the chopped tomato and tomato paste. You can’t go the red route and then add milk or cream.

I usually go gold. Once I had my first gramigna alla salsiccia I was hooked. No going back.

Some people add a few more herbs along with the wine, but there are many who prefer that all the herbs come at the foundation stage. I’m with the majority on that.

A good knowledge of the minimum and maximum time. Solid awareness of the ingredients, their roles,  and their relationships to each other. Real understanding of the options and when they come into play. Some interventions to refine the taste and flavour, based on active feedback. And patience to see the job through.

All the chefs I’ve seen in operation taste vigorously. Make a point of smelling the aroma regularly. Test the consistency and texture as often as possible.

Iteration. Active feedback loops. Knowing when and how to intervene. Always with an eye on the outcome.

That’s cooking.

Sometimes it’s also how you get things done.

In a perverse kind of way, I think of slow food as “agile” and fast food as “waterfall”. When I cook slow, I iterate, I learn, I react. And I keep doing that. When I see fast food being prepared, it’s about one way of doing things from start to finish, with standardised monitoring and alerts but no iteration.

I know what I prefer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh frabjous day

 

Today may turn out to be a very important day in the world of Test cricket. Regular readers will know that I am no fan of the Decision Review System (DRS). While I’m all for sensible use of technology in sport, I cannot abide the way “Umpire’s Call” is designed to work. It’s an abomination.

Until today, I couldn’t see a simple way out. DRS was here to stay, and with it the Umpire’s Call, or so it seemed. A constant threat, with the ability to mar, to scar, what would otherwise have been an enjoyable day’s cricket.

Today all that changed at Dharamsala, during the Fourth (and deciding) Test between India and Australia. It couldn’t have happened in a nicer place.

12dharamsala.jpg

Australia won the toss and elected to bat. They were bowled out for precisely 300 in 88.3 overs. India faced just one over, ending the day at 0 for 0.

A full day’s play. A decent over rate. A decent run rate. 10 wickets. 300 runs. A fabulous century by one of the finest cricketers plying his trade at present. A glorious debut by a young spinner. An enthralling contest. A splendid time is guaranteed for all. Being for the benefit of all and sundry, not just Mr Kite.

And not a single review. Australia did not review any of the ten wickets they lost. India didn’t have anything to review; I can remember one instance when Bhuvaneswar Kumar thought about it, but decided against it.

There was a dearth of spurious appeals. At least that’s the way it looked to me, watching from thousands of miles away.

The batsmen all walked. Something deep in the spirit of the game, something that’s been eroding of late. [I still cringe at the memory of what Stuart Broad did. Not walking was sin enough. Not walking because the fielding side “had no reviews left”, that called for the cricketing equivalent of bell, book and candle.]

None of the batsmen was given out LBW, in a full day’s cricket, with ten wickets falling. This too on the subcontinent, with a bunch of spinners doing their bit for God and country. Unheard-of.

That’s surely a record in times of DRS, and may have been quite rare even before that.

Bowling negatively, staying well outside the off stump, trying to bore the daylights out of batsmen and spectators, wishing and willing them to lose patience and hang their bat out; slowing the over rate down to abysmal levels; using every trick in the book (and often ones not in the book) to rough up one side of the ball and to shine the other; appealing whimsically, irrelevantly and even irritatingly; running on to the pitch while bowling in the fourth innings; all this and more; there is much that despoils the game, brings it into disrepute.

Today was a welcome break from all that nonsense.

For that, I have to thank the two teams and the officials. Whatever the result, they’ve given us the example of a whole day’s cricket the way it should be played.

And it came with a bonus. How do you avoid the abomination of DRS? Get the batsmen out unambiguously, unequivocally, without the need for an LBW decision.

There’s hope yet for cricket, particularly Test cricket.

 

 

 

Another unGoogleable question

Note: I have posted unGoogleable questions before. Hence the “Another”.

I’ve posted links to seven songs below. In a particular sequence. The sequence matters. There is a link between each song and the song that follows it; those links are broken if the sequence is changed. I have not been able to continue the sequence, though it might be possible. Can you continue the sequence, or at least spot what chains one song to the next?

Give it a try. At worst you may discover some music you like that you haven’t heard before.