When it comes to dinner, the most difficult meal to assemble on a daily basis, we all have our quick fixes: leftovers, take out, frozen vegetables, pasta.
After her children were born, Ronna Welsh’s default was cereal (for herself, not her kids). But she’s since devised a system that has changed her last-minute routine, which in turn led to the founding of her new food business, Purple Kale Kitchenworks.
The Park Slope chef has worked at and consulted for restaurants like Savoy and Rose Water, and now offers workshops in her home kitchen (or yours) that teach the average cook what is common practice to a chef–the mise en place.
The phrase means having everything in place: all the ingredients you need for a meal, prepped and ready to assemble. In your mind you may be visualizing spices measured out in little glass bowls like on cooking shows, or carrots diced and Ziplocked. But the gospel Welsh preaches is much more sophisticated.
In a given week, she’ll braise fennel, roast a pork tenderloin, caramelize onions, make brown rice, and prepare other savory treats like tomato confit ahead of time, all to their perfect “Holding Point”–her term for the “furthest useful point of preparation of an ingredient,” which will make it last longer in the fridge and speed up your cooking time when you throw together a meal.
So if she wants lunch in a hurry–Which is what we all want right? Lunch in 1 minute?–she’s got cold pork to slice for a sandwich. And if she wants a dinner for picky eaters and for adventurous adults, she has plenty of options: the confit can be tossed in with pasta, the fennel can be blended into baby food or pureed with the onions and stock to make a soup, diced and mixed with rice, or reheated with the pork, onions and grains with the help of a homemade stock and infused butter. By creating a chef’s station at home, says Welsh, “it allows you to feed people in your family variations on the same meal.”
If you’ve ever opened the fridge at 6pm and stared at the raw meat and vegetables and then closed the door, this is a way out of that oxymoronic predicament of having healthy food in the house, but no time or energy to make dinner out of it. And the more you apply Welsh’s method to all your groceries, and maximize every minute you’re at the stove, the more you’ll have to improvise with. So maybe you make twice the brown rice you need for dinner and save the rest for another meal. Or on the day you get your CSA delivery, you roast all the potatoes in your box so they’re ready for a soup or a side at any point that week.
Ultimately Welsh is teaching creativity and freedom from our typical standbys: take out and leftovers. As she says, “There’s not much you can do with lasagna.” (Besides reheat it.) But there are a dozen meals you can make with a mise en place that she spells out in her intimate, 6-8 person classes, which begin with a leisurely lunch. One delicious and unexpected dish from her most recent workshop featured freekeh, a slightly smoky grain that she sauteed with roasted cauliflower and toasted almonds, all from her well-stocked fridge and pantry.
Over the meal, she reviews her 50-page syllabus that includes recipes from her weekly mise en place, like infused herb butter, rich stocks, Manny Rice–her secret to tasty brown rice–and seasonal ingredients like braised fennel. Then students get to cook using the ingredients in their own creative way. (A companion blog, 2minutestodinner, keeps track of her and her student’s improvisations.)
At the end of class, Welsh gives out a few of her homemade “Provisions” that help make a last-minute meal even easier: components like compound butters, pastry dough and stocks. She plans to sell these en masse, but for now she is making them in limited quantities, as her five-hour-plus workshops keep her plenty busy. She has four left this fall; visit her site to sign up or find out more.