A Mess in Place (Mise en place)

kitchen table with all ingredients needed to prepare ginger cake

If you have ever left a crucial ingredient out of a recipe, you know how awful the results can be. My family still teases me about a pumpkin pie with no sugar, and for years my sister carried the burden of using salt instead of sugar in a recipe. Gathering all your ingredients together for a recipe can be daunting, especially if you’ve never made it before, or there is a long list of ingredients.

Never fear. The French, who have a reputation for good cooking, have the answer. They even have a term for it—mise en place, pronounced “MEEZ-on-plahs”—which means, “putting in place.” Essentially, mise en place means collecting all your ingredients together before you start to cook.

I love the Wikipedia definition, which includes the word as both a verb and a noun: “In the kitchen, the phrase is used as a noun (i.e., the setup of the array of ingredients), a verb (i.e., the process of preparing), and a state of mind. The term’s broader meanings can be applied to classrooms, hospitals, IT departments, and elsewhere.”

I find it fun to think about cooking techniques cleaning up messes all over the world, including classrooms, hospitals, and IT departments! If mise en place can help in all those places, it can surely help in your kitchen.

And of course, there are all those cute little bowls and containers to put your ready-to-use ingredients into. I have found some great little bowls at Asian specialty stores—ceramic or bamboo or glass—originally intended for dipping sauces. For gifts this year, I made several mise en place kits for family and friends. I bought some cute dipping bowls online, found some simple measuring spoons, cups, and pitchers, and reused several small sauce containers from take-out meals. I tried to choose dishes that would nest inside each other to save space. Then I put a set of each in a small basket, which could be kept on the kitchen counter, along with a note about mise en place and a few recipes.

Stir-fried dishes are a great place to use your mise en place skills, since all the vegetables and ingredients usually need to be added in sequence with not much time in between adding them. Try my stir-fried pepper steak recipe—it’s so much lower in sodium than any restaurant version—and test out your new mise en place skills.

For a more complex recipe, try my family’s favorite, “Three Kinds Ginger Cake.” You can make this as fancy or as low key as you like. The recipe makes either two comfy loaf-pan cakes for a casual treat (maybe give one to a friend) or one 9” round or square cake. To make a more special two-layer cake or to split the two layers for a fancy four-layer birthday cake, double the recipe. Use the cherry sauce as a topping to single layer cakes or spread between layers of cake and frost the top and side with your favorite cream cheese icing for that special someone’s birthday.

Stir-fry Pepper Steak

2 tablespoons cooking sherry or unseasoned rice vinegar

1 tablespoon low sodium soy sauce

4 teaspoons cornstarch

1 pound lean flank steak or chuck steak cut into thin strips (or try shrimp or chicken)

2 bell peppers, sliced into strips

1 medium onion, sliced

1 clove garlic, crushed

4 plum tomatoes, cubed

2 cups broccoli, sugar peas, or asparagus (fresh or frozen)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided

2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger

In medium bowl, whisk vinegar, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 1 teaspoon cornstarch. Add sliced steak and toss. Marinate for 15 minutes.

For sauce, mix 1 tablespoon cornstarch, 2 tablespoons water, and 2 tablespoons soy sauce in a small bowl. Set it aside.

In large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of oil on medium high heat. Add onions and peppers, cook 3-5 minutes or until soft. Add garlic, tomatoes, ginger, and 1/4 cup water. Stir-fry for 2-3 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside.

In the same skillet, add 1 tablespoon oil and marinated steak. Cook until the meat is browned.

Add vegetables and sauce. Cook 2–3 minutes until sauce thickens. Serve over noodles or brown or white rice.

Nutrition facts per serving (serves 6–8): calories 152, carbohydrates 9gm, protein 14 gm, sodium 153 mg.

Three Kinds Ginger Cake

½ cup sugar

½ cup butter

1 cup dark molasses

2 ¼ cup flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated

1 teaspoon powdered ginger

½ cup candied ginger, chopped

½ teaspoon cloves

1 cup boiling water

2 beaten eggs

Set oven to 350 degrees. Grease and/or line cake pan or square baking pan with parchment paper. Measure out all your ingredients and put them in small or medium bowls. Put sugar, butter, and molasses in a large bowl. In a medium bowl mix flour, baking soda, spices, and gingers. Add 1/3 of the dry ingredients to the large bowl with sugar, butter, molasses mixture, mixing and alternating with 1/3 of the boiling water. Repeat until all ingredients are combined. Add beaten eggs last. Stir and put into cake pan. Use cherry sauce as a topping or spread between layers of cake and frost with your favorite cream cheese icing.

Serves 10. Nutrition facts per serving (does not include sauce): calories 347, carbohydrates 58 g, protein 5 g, sodium 353 mg

Simple Sweet Cherry Sauce

2 cups fresh Bing or frozen sweet dark cherries

½ cup sugar

½ cup water

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons fruit juice or white or red wine

In saucepan, combine cherries, sugar, 1 cup water, and lemon juice. Stir. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until cherries are soft, about 5-10 minutes. In a small bowl, mix cornstarch and fruit juice or wine. Stir well and add to cherry mixture. Cook until thickened, about 5 minutes. Cool to room temperature and serve over cake or spread between cake layers.

Katy G. WilkensContributor Katy G. Wilkens recently retired as registered dietitian and department head at Northwest Kidney Centers. The National Kidney Foundation Council on Renal Nutrition has honored her with its highest awards for excellence in education and for significant contributions in renal nutrition. She has also been awarded the Medal of Excellence in kidney nutrition from the American Association of Kidney Patients.

Photo credit: 3 Kinds of Ginger Cake photo at top (birthday cake mise en place) by Rich Wilkens.

This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of AgeWise King County.