Even if you don’t speak French, you know the term mise en place in its culinary context: having everything in its place before firing up the stove. But it also means organising or setting things up in a more general sense, and can be applied to one’s affairs; in an exciting way it’s beginning to apply to our French life, which is starting to fall nicely into place without actually having been put there.
Asparagus, spring onions, fava beans, what else? Yesterday we were invited to a wine pairing luncheon, and my assignment was to bring the entrée, which in France is the starter. Our hostess asked me to make something with “lots of vegetables and a bit of charcuterie.” I was flummoxed, right up until the morning of the party. Customarily an effortless cook, I just couldn’t get this dish to come together in my mind. Part of the problem was that the gathering was to be an intimate one, all French people, none of whom we knew well, at a home we’d never seen. I didn’t know the rest of the menu, I didn’t know the kitchen, all I knew was that the hosts had a formidable stock of 3000 bottles of great wines deep underneath the house and that everyone at the table was a wine expert of one sort or another. I wouldn’t say that I was intimidated, but I was definitely discomfited. Which technically in French is déconcerté, but in current usage would best be translated with a word you’ll recognize immediately: complexé.
I puttered. I muttered. I imagined a dish based on stuffed morilles, or morels, but then it rained for three days and visions of soggy fungi danced in my dreams. The fava beans from Spain were just finishing, those from Provence weren’t quite here yet. Asparagus was everywhere, but it’s notoriously hard on wine.
With no clear idea of the final plan, I made a little velouté of asparagus, fennel, and leeks. Hmm, that tasted better cold, and by the time it had been through a fine sieve three times there was only a tiny amount left. Then I made some leeks braised in Pineau des Charentes, which were nice, but not thrilling. Next I brined some pork belly and braised it in rosé on a bed of vegetables. When it seemed really too bad to toss the vegetables I made them into a little vegetable paté. When the pork ended up being a little bland I glazed it with a bit of quince jam and more Pineau des Charentes. When that tasted decidedly sweet and perhaps a bit too American, I remembered that I had some baby chicory, bitter enough to balance the sweetness of the pork, especially when splashed with a bit of moutarde violette, a deep purple mustard made with grape must.
The night before the party I realized that there was no way to get all of that gracefully on one plate, so I decided to bring an amuse bouche of the velouté, garnished with some asparagus tips and a little ball of walnut cheese, and small bites of the vegetable paté. The entrée morphed into a plate with a few favas and a stalk of asparagus, nestled up to the warm pork perched on a bed of leeks, which was in turn blanketed with the chicory salad.
Quaking a bit, I called the hostess a few hours before the luncheon to say that I’d accidentally ended up making two courses, but she replied that they’d decided on a tasting menu format anyway so I was right in tune. I mentioned that I could imagine a white Burgundy going well with my entrée, she said that she’d already brought one up from the cave for my course, just anticipating what I might make.
As it turned out the luncheon was wonderful, my food fit in perfectly, and we felt absolutely at home, both in the kitchen and at the table. The fact that we started out with a 26 year old Dom Perignon didn’t hurt a bit either. And thus it was that in a heartbeat I went from nailbiting cluelessness to a sweet moment of grace, one in which the mise en place was impeccable.