Productivity tip: Begin with a cleared surface

After seeing our post last week about his book Twenty, Michael Ruhlman sent me a message saying I’d left out one of the essential components of mise en place. He was right, I had left out one of the best parts! (His message was very nice, by the way. And, it means he actually read the post, which is quite flattering to this fangirl.)

The first step of mise en place, before you pull out a single ingredient from the cupboard or turn a dial to heat up your stove, is to:

Put away everything that you don’t need.

Clear your counter top. Get rid of the clutter. Or, to co-opt an artist’s metaphor, start with a blank canvas.

You run a much smaller risk of making a cooking mistake and adding an unwanted ingredient or missing a step if there isn’t anything else out on the counter to distract you. At the end of the cooking process, you’ll know if you forgot to salt the food because you’ll see a little bowl with salt in it sitting next to the stove. If your counter is piled high with junk mail, dirty dishes, and your child’s art projects, you could easily overlook the missing item.

Clearing the counter top also allows you to focus on exactly what you’re doing. There isn’t anything to distract you, at least that you can control.

This concept of putting away everything that you don’t need applies to a lot of projects that you may encounter throughout your day. It’s perfect for working on a project at work — close all programs and windows on your computer screen that aren’t related to your work, clear your desk of all materials that you don’t need — or even your hobby work surfaces at home. Mise en place is a great way to help you be productive even outside your kitchen.

Can mise en place make your cooking more organized?

When cooking from a recipe, I usually:

  1. Read through the entire recipe to get a comprehensive idea of what I’ll be doing.
  2. Read through the recipe again, this time taking notes on the recipe that are helpful to me during the cooking process.
  3. Set out all of the equipment I’ll need to complete the recipe.
  4. Measure, chop, mince, etc. anything that has to be done at a very specific time during the cooking process. (If I’m making soup, I’ll chop all my vegetables first, but I tend to just measure and grab ingredients out of the refrigerator and pantry as I go.)
  5. Heat the stove or oven, if applicable.
  6. Cook.

You’ll notice that I don’t typically measure out all of my ingredients or get them out of the cupboard before starting the cooking process. This step, referred to as mise en place, has always seemed to me to be unnecessary. I also think measuring things ahead of time dirties a ridiculous number of bowls. Or, rather, I thought it was ridiculous until reading Michael Ruhlman‘s newest cookbook Twenty.

Before explaining what Ruhlman said to change my mind (or at least think mise en place less ridiculous), let me first give you some of his credentials. He co-wrote Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook, been a judge on Iron Chef America, studied at The Culinary Institute of America, wrote Ratio (one of the most useful cookbooks ever written, in my opinion), and has also written books with chefs Eric Ripert, Michael Symon, and Anthony Bourdain. If you like to cook, Ruhlman’s books are valuable companions in the kitchen.

Now that I have my praises for Ruhlman out of my system, let me share with you what he wrote that helped to change my mind about mise en place. From pages 13 and 14 in Twenty:

There are all kinds of home cooks — people who cook to unwind; people who cook as a hobby; people who cook because they want to feed their family healthful, tasty, economical meals; and people who cook because it’s the least objectionable option in fulfilling a daily need. Regardless of what kind of cook you are, the most basic rules apply. First and foremost is that cooking is easier, faster, more efficient, more successful, and more fun when you think first, when you prepare and organize, when you set up your mise en place.

This is not an additional step — it’s simply doing all that you would do throughout the cooking anyway. You’re just doing it ahead of time, spending less time between cupboard and counter, refrigerator and stove. Be sure your counter or work area is completely clear. Go to the refrigerator, pull everything you’re going to need, and set it out. Go to the cupboard, and pull everything there you’ll need. Gather your tools beside your cutting board, set the pans you’ll need on the stove, and get the oven hot if you’re using it. Think about the sequence of your actions. And then being to work, and as you work while you’re doing one thing, think about what you’ll be doing next and next after that.

The past few meals I’ve made, I’ve tried mise en place (Ruhlman defines it as “organize and prepare,” even though it’s exact translated meaning is “put in place”). I’m not convinced it’s something I’ll do in the future for everything I make, especially the favorite recipes I know by heart and could make while wearing a blindfold. However, for all new and tricky recipes, I’m giving it a whirl. Being organized and prepared has served me well in so many other aspects of my life, it’s likely to benefit me in the kitchen.

What are your thoughts on mise en place as a way to help you be more organized in the kitchen? If you thought it was a waste of time, like I did, do Ruhlman’s words change your mind at all? Or, have you been a loyal mise en place preparation guru your entire cooking life? I’m interested in reading people’s thoughts on this cooking habit.

The Simple Meal

When life gets busy and stressful and you feel pulled in multiple directions, meal planning is often the first system to break down at home. You want someone else to get food on the table. You want someone else to clean up afterward. You want someone else to make it happen without adding any stress to your already complicated life.

Eating out at a restaurant or pulling through a drive-thru are short-term solutions to what is hopefully a short-term situation. They’re convenient and won’t do too much damage to your finances or waistline as long as they’re rare occurrences. If eating out at a restaurant and pulling through a drive-thru become your standard mode of operation, however, you’ll realize these short-term conveniences have long-term consequences.

Over the years, my husband and I have come to rely on The Simple Meal when we’re stressed and don’t want to make a production out of dinner. This meal consists of a protein, a vegetable, and a drink. From start to finish it takes the same amount of time as pulling through a drive-thru and less time than eating out at a restaurant. Plus, the cleanup is usually very simple.

The key to making the protein and vegetable interesting enough to constitute a meal are really good spices and sauces. Rustic rub catfish takes five seconds longer to make than plain catfish when you have the rustic spice rub prepared ahead of time. Honey-bourbon salmon takes 30 seconds longer to make than plain salmon as long as you have 3 Tbl of honey and 1/2 cup of bourbon already in your house. And tilapia with an olive tapenade takes just minutes to get on the table when you have olive tapenade in your pantry. All three of these proteins can be baked in the oven (with a little bit of lemon juice to help prevent sticking) in aluminum foil pouches, eliminating the need to wash a pan or baking sheet.

Fresh and frozen (buy the ones not packaged with salt or a sauce) vegetables are a breeze to fix, too. I’ll put a handful of green beans or broccoli or corn in a bowl in the microwave with a little bit of water, heat thoroughly, and then strain off the water. Once strained, I’ll add garlic salt or a little melted butter or some red pepper chili flakes or whatever will compliment the vegetables. I serve the vegetables in the same bowl I cooked them in to cut down on dish mess.

The best part about The Simple Meal is that it is almost always more nutritious and healthful than what you can get from a drive-thru, and it usually tastes better. If you don’t have a protein in house, swinging by the fish monger or butcher’s counter doesn’t take any more time than running out to get something. The Simple Meal is also great for cooks who are new to the kitchen.

If you’re new to cooking, invest in a quality meat thermometer and familiarize yourself with:

What Simple Meals do you make when under a time crunch and want to keep dinner from being a production? Share your recipes in the comments, and be sure to check out our sister site SimpliFried.com for ideas, too.

Strategies for keeping clutter off your dining table

If your home functions anything like mine, your dining table isn’t used just for eating. In addition to providing a dining space, our table is used for meal preparation, my son’s coloring surface, an alternate work station if my husband or I need a change of pace from our desks, a hang out spot to sit and read, and dozens of other purposes. Keeping clutter off the table so it’s ready for eating or whatever chore we want to throw at it can be a challenge, and these are some of the strategies we use to keep it clear:

  • Have a mail processing station by the main entrance. First and foremost, the dining table is not a place for mail. Create a mail processing station by your main entrance where you can sort, shred, trash, recycle, and properly handle all of your mail.
  • Install hooks for coats and bags by the main entrance. Similar to the previous point, the dining table is not a place for coats, hats, bags, and briefcases. Hang hooks for coats and bags near your main entrance so these items don’t end up on the table.
  • Keep a trash can near your dining table. If you have a formal dining room, you likely don’t have a trash can in this space. Find a way to hide one in a buffet or side table, or keep one very close by in another room that you can easily pick up and move into this space. You’ll be amazed by how useful a simple trash can will be for keeping clutter off your table. Earn an additional point if you can hide a recycling bin in the room, too.
  • Organize your buffet or sideboard to meet the needs of the space. So often sideboards and buffets are full of china that is rarely used or silver service you pull out just once a year. If you want these special event items, store them someplace more remote (the high shelves of kitchen cupboards are usually good locations) and use your sideboard or buffet for things you actually use in your dining room. In addition to storing place mats and napkins, our sideboard holds crayons and coloring books, a pair of scissors, an extra set of my reading glasses, table cleaning supplies, a few pens and pencils, a spare power cable that works with all the laptops in the house, an extension cord, and a radio.
  • Set the table as the first step of meal preparation. If you don’t plan to use the table while you’re making the meal, set it with plates, cups, silverware, etc., as your first meal preparation step. This way, when housemates come through the dining room, they won’t deposit items not related to the meal on the table. Setting the table is also a wonderful chore for any child three or older.
  • Don’t pick up and drop stuff someplace else. Although it is incredibly easy to just scoop up what is on the table and set it on another surface, try your best to properly sort through items when you remove them. Throw out the trash, put toys away, shred the credit card applications, and file papers that need to be filed. The top of the sideboard or buffet is as bad a location to hold this clutter as the table was.
  • Wipe down the table and sweep the floor after every meal. To keep from getting ants, this step is imperative with a toddler in the house. However, it might not be such an obvious step if the people dining at your table aren’t in the habit of dropping half their food on the floor. Completely cleaning off the table after every meal makes it a welcoming space for the next meal or whatever other use you need. This is also a great thing to do after every alternate use, too.
  • Avoid having a catch-all container that lives on the table. In some homes the catch-all container is a circular rotating tray, in others it might be a decorative plate or bamboo platter. Devices that are made to hold salt, pepper, sugar, napkins, and condiments are great for containing small items — but they’ll end up holding other non-meal related small items if the tray isn’t removed from the table after every meal. Have a place in the kitchen for this service to live in between meal times.

What steps do you take to keep clutter off the table? Share your additional strategies in the comments.

Links for April 21, 2011

These items caught my attention over the past couple weeks, and I wanted to share them with you. They weren’t large enough to stand on their own as full posts, so I gathered them together in a link roundup:

  • The company Electrolux sponsored nine teams at the Domus Academy in Milan to design the kitchen of the future. The concepts are pretty impressive, especially for small space and storage design. Electrolux ReSource.
  • The show Clean House is looking for cluttered homes to be made over for future episodes. The show is filming next season in the greater Los Angeles and New York City areas, and to be considered you must own your home and at least two adults must live in the place. If you want to be on the show, email your name, address, phone number, list of everyone in the house and relationship to them, photos or videos of three rooms in your home that are messy, and a brief explanation for why you want to be on the show to Rose at rosecastingcleanhouse@gmail.com for LA consideration and Amy at assistant@mendenhallmedia.com for NYC consideration. You must submit your email by tomorrow, April 22, 2011.
  • SwissMiss featured a great little product that bands your writing utensils to your favorite notebook, clipboard, or book. The pencil holders are called Clever Hands and they’re made by an artist on Etsy. I think these would be a great organizing tool for students.
  • A website, hysterically named BookshelfPorn, features daily pictures of (usually) organized bookshelves from amazing libraries around the world. After our post earlier this month about keeping clutter off your bookshelf, I thought you all might enjoy seeing these (mostly) amazing solutions.
  • My friend Julie Bestry, a professional organizer based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, recently wrote a post for the Metropolitan Organizing website on how to become a Certified Professional Organizer. If you’ve ever thought about a career as a professional organizer or are already a professional organizer and want to be a CPO, I highly recommend checking out her post.
  • Another professional organizer friend of mine, Allison Carter based in the Atlanta area, has a quick post on uncluttered gift ideas for moms for this upcoming Mother’s Day.
  • Last August, NPR featured a 40-minute segment on Fresh Air exploring “Digital Overload.” It’s a long segment, but it’s interesting as it looks at people’s addiction to multi-tasking.

SimpliFried roundup

In the last few weeks on our sister website Simplifried, we’ve tackled many yummy and useful cooking topics. Check them out and weigh in if you’re interested:

Confused about how to boil water? Is your refrigerator running? Shouldn’t you go catch it? Head on over to Simplifried to have all your cooking related inquires answered, or follow @simplifried on Twitter.

SimpliFried round-up

In the last few weeks at Simplifried, we’ve tackled the new dietary guidelines, looked at a few new elastic recipes, and started our “Questions for Cooks” feature. We reminisced about delicious homemade rice pudding from youth and talked about why laptops and the kitchen are often a recipe for disaster.

Confused about how to boil water? Is your fridge running? Shouldn’t you go catch it? Head on over to Simplifried to have all your cooking related inquires answered, or follow @simplifried on Twitter.

Curing clutter problems in under-sink cabinets

Cabinets under sinks in kitchens and bathrooms are common places to find clutter. There are pipes, maybe a hose or two, and usually a lot of stuff that was stored there in hopes that it would just magically disappear. Additionally, having clutter in this space can quickly become disastrous if one of the pipes or hoses develops a leak or bursts. Then, not only do you have a clutter problem, but you also have a soggy clutter problem.

The first thing to do with these spaces is to clear everything out from this area. Inspect the cabinet and check for signs of leaks or pests. If your cabinet is leak and pest clear, give the cabinet a good cleaning. If you have a leak or pests, call a professional and have the problem resolved before it gets even more out of hand.

Once everything is out of the cabinet, sort through it and ask yourself a few questions:

  • Is this item expired or damaged?
  • Is this item a hazardous chemical?
  • Is under the sink the best place to store this item?

If the item is expired or damaged, get rid of it or have it repaired immediately. If the item is a hazardous chemical (like a cleaning supply), move it somewhere where small children and visitors to your home cannot easily get their hands on it (a locked cabinet is best for these materials). Finally, if you don’t use the item in the room near the sink, storing the object under the sink isn’t a good idea.

After sorting through your items, I strongly recommend installing a storage system that will get items up off the bottom of the cabinet and take advantage of the vertical space.

Under our sink, we have roll-out storage shelves similar to this:

We have items in small, clear, plastic storage boxes with lids on the pull-out shelves in kits. This makes it easier to pull out all the supplies we need for different tasks at once (pony tail holders, sponges). Also, if a pipe bursts or leaks, the plastic box provides a second level of protection from the water. What is nice about roll-out shelves is you don’t have to get down on your hands and knees whenever you want to reach something at the back of the cabinet.

If the pipes under your sink will work with it, adjustable under-sink shelves might also work well for your space:

Again, as with the roll-out shelves, we suggest using small, clear, plastic storage boxes with lids for your supplies when you return them to the cabinet, as an extra level of protection for you things from pipe and hose leaks.

January resolution wrap up, and introduction of February resolution

In 2011, I’m trying out small, monthly resolutions instead of large, annual New Year’s resolutions. My public resolution for January was to be more organized in the kitchen, and create and use more nutritious meal plans for my family. If you read SimpliFried, then you know I even made one of my meal plans downloadable for anyone who wants it.

The small goal worked well for me, and I’ll try to continue it into February along with my new resolution for the second month. I think the first resolution was successful because it was:

  • Scheduled. Every Monday I had “Meal Planning,” written on my calendar between 8:00 and 9:00 p.m. The block of time on the calendar helped me to commit to it.
  • Prepared. I had the Harvard Medical School’s guide to healthy eating Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy as my nutrition guide, a blank meal planning worksheet, a pen, a stack of cookbooks, and my favorite recipes from the internet with me every time I made the plan.
  • Concrete. My goal to make and follow a weekly meal plan wasn’t lofty or ambiguous. What needed to happen was clear from the beginning and it was easy to break into action items.
  • Achievable. I knew it was possible to achieve the resolution, I just had to take the time and invest the energy to make it happen. Additionally, with fresh food in the house, I knew if I didn’t stick to the plans I would be wasting my money.
  • Accountable. By telling my family and the readers of this website that this was my resolution, I felt a greater sense of responsibility to carry out the goal. I’m not sure this was necessary since I wanted to do it, but it certainly didn’t hurt.

My plan had been to make February my Super Simple Month again this year, but it unfortunately looks like it’s not going to work. I’ll have to rearrange things on the calendar to try for it in March or April. One of my extended family members is very ill and I need to do some traveling this month related to her.

As an alternative, my public resolution for February will be to go through everything — absolutely everything — in my office. There will be uncluttering, organizing, rearranging, and a lot of paper processing. I spend the vast majority of my day in about 150 square feet of space, and this room needs my attention. To a visitor, my office doesn’t look cluttered, but I know what lies beneath. I know how stuffed my filing cabinet is and how many things are ready to go from this space.

Tonight, I’ll kick off my monthly resolution by splitting the room into zones and scheduling when I will address these zones on my calendar. One shelf a day, followed by one drawer a day, and so-on-and-so-forth until I’ve tackled the entire room.

Do you have resolutions? What are you doing to achieving them? Can you do something today to get one step closer to your goal?

SimpliFried round-up

It’s difficult for me to believe, but our sister site SimpliFried has been live for two weeks now. In case you missed our big announcement, we started this new site as a way to help readers relieve stress surrounding mealtimes (because this is the area of life we struggle with the most).

As a quick round-up, these are the posts we’ve had so far on SimpliFried:

If you haven’t check out SimpliFried yet, please do. We’re excited about the community we’ve built there and are loving what’s coming up on the schedule.

Introducing: SimpliFried.com

The Unclutterer family is growing, and I am elated to share with you the incredible news. Today, Dancing Mammoth (our parent company) is launching a new website that hopes to end mealtime stress. I would like to introduce you to our new sister site:

SimpliFried’s motto: “If your nerves are fried, we’ll be your simple, delicious, and nutritious cooking guide.” Our goal is to make feeding yourself and your family as painless as possible.

Similar to Unclutterer, there will be daily content posted to the site. Topics will range from simplifying and improving your cooking skills to food science to recipes that get you quickly in and out of the kitchen. Once a month there will be meal plans and shopping lists that make your life in the kitchen easier. Check out SimpliFried’s manifesto and About page to learn more.

I’m on board as the site’s Editor-in-Chief, and Matt Fetissoff joins me as our senior writer. Matt has lived for more than an year in an RV, and he knows a thing or two about cooking incredible meals in small spaces with low-tech equipment. Consulting to the site are a couple farmers (one in a major city and one on a large Midwest family farm), a butcher, a nutritionist, a self-declared foodie, and my very picky husband and even more picky peanut-allergic son who test drive every meal plan and recipe.

You can key in the URL by hand, subscribe to SimpliFried’s RSS feed, or get daily updates by e-mail. We also have a Twitter account @SimpliFried that regularly posts links.

Although there are only four posts currently live on the site, we’ve been working on SimpliFried for more than four months getting ready for the launch. I’m honestly surprised I was able to keep it a secret for so long. I am thrilled to finally be able to introduce it to you. The new logo even makes me smile, and I’m so glad we were able to have the same artist make him.

If you are looking for simplification strategies for your kitchen and cooking, I hope that SimpliFried can be a positive resource for you.

January 2011 resolutions and a plan of action

In 2011, I am becoming the queen of self-micromanagement. I have tried lofty, big-picture, annual resolutions and obtained them with some success. I have tried practical, quarterly goals and seen greater success. However, I am ready for a year of 100 percent success, and monthly resolutions with daily schedules will be my plan of action to make that happen.

For 2011, I chose 24 new year’s resolutions. Twelve of these resolutions are organizing, uncluttering, and/or cleaning related, which I will share with you. The other twelve are personal and won’t be shared on the website. In January, I have taken on two resolutions — one public and one private. In February, there will be two more, and there will be two more each month for the remainder of the year.

Additionally, I have vowed to plan out every single day, hour-by-hour, to help me achieve these resolutions. Each evening before bed, I will plan out the next day and make sure that I schedule time for all of my resolutions. After waking up the next morning, I will review the schedule, print it out, and follow it to the best of my abilities.

I acknowledge that some days my schedule will be dissolved because of an unforseen event — but that is totally fine. Assuming not every day’s schedule is disrupted, I will likely be able to achieve my resolutions within the month timeframe. At least, that is my hope.

My first public resolution for 2011 is to plan healthier meals for myself and my family, and to stick to the meal plans I create. My family is pretty good about making meal plans, but lately the plans have been filled with comfort food with an extra helping of comfort food (this is a common trend for us during Nesting Season).

In December, I read the Harvard Medical School’s guide to healthy eating Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy and took copious notes. The book made me realize that my family doesn’t eat as many servings of vegetables per day as we should (we were getting just three, and we need to bump it up to five), and that two servings of whole grains a day is at least one serving too few. Starting tonight, I’m sitting down with the notes I took from the book and creating a more healthy meal plan.

Based on the plan I create, I’ll go grocery shopping before work Tuesday morning (when my grocery store is quiet as a mouse) and pick up the ingredients I need. Then, I’ll try my hardest to stick to the plan throughout the week.

I’ve given myself an hour to create the meal plan — between 8:00 and 9:00 tonight. Already having it on my schedule, and giving myself a limited amount of time to complete it, is part of my self-micromanagement plan. All snacks, meal preparations, dining, and cleanup activities are also planned on my schedule. I’m serious about improving the quality of my family’s meals, and so I’m hoping my increased organizing efforts will make it a reality.

What about you? What are you doing today to achieve your 2011 resolutions? Do you like the idea of monthly resolutions? Would an hour-by-hour schedule help you to move forward with your action items? I’ll admit, 24 resolutions for 2011 feels like a lot to accomplish — but I am willing to tackle two at a time using my self-micromanagement plan. I’ll keep you updated each month as new resolutions come onto the schedule. I’m genuinely excited to see how my 2011 resolutions fare in comparison to previous years.