Mise en Place
The most important thing I learned from three months in cooking school.
I learned many things during the three months I spent learning the core of French culinary technique at the late French Culinary Institute which for years had trained professional chefs in its SoHo kitchens. I learned knife skills, cooking techniques, and both complex and simple things that transformed the way I cook at home.
But probably the most important lesson I learned was mise en place -- which means, the setting is in place.
In the kitchen, mise en place means having all the ingredients necessary for a dish prepared and ready to combine -- up to the point of cooking them. It means you've read the recipe, maybe more than once. You have all the ingredients on hand. If something is supposed to be at room temperature you've done that. Everything has been washed, trimmed, cut and measured. The stock is warm. The butter melted. The garlic minced. The oven is at the target temperature. All that's left to do is combine and cook.
This is the Rachel Ray trick. Of course you can cook meals in 30 minutes. Unless you're braising a 2-hour pot roast or osso buco, there's not much that you can't cook in 30 minutes. That is, if you've done your mise en place, which is always the most time-consuming part of cooking and more often than not, takes more than 30 minutes so let's not fool ourselves.
Chefs use the term as a noun, as a goal, and as a concept. "Have you done your mise en place?" our teacher used to constantly ask. You wouldn't start cooking until you had.
When most of us first begin to cook and we're trying to figure it out all on our own, we begin to cook at the start of a recipe, only to get half-way through before realizing that you were supposed to warm a half-cup of milk, or pre-sauté that cup of minced onion, or chop a handful of parsley. And there you are in a state of stress because whatever you're making is waiting and you're not ready.
Figuring out the mise en place can also help you spot which recipes take more time than others. Invariably the most time-consuming meals are those that require lots of chopping. If you've read your recipe with pre-cooking prep in mind, you'll see which are speedy and which are not. For example: salads. They are prep-intensive and can easily add 15 to 30 minutes to your cooking time.
The next time you're watching a cooking TV show, watch how the chef has everything already measured out. This isn't just because the show is only a half-hour and there's a staff of prep cooks backstage (although this is true). It's also because this is the way a successful kitchen approaches the task of cooking.
Buy yourself a half-dozen little 4 oz. Pyrex glass cups or souffle dishes and some larger bowls and the next time you cook, prepare everything first and put the ingredients into the dishes. You'll be amazed at the liberation. And you'll be amazed how you will suddenly become a better cook.