Fragrant Things

Mise en place—this French phrase describes the first step a mindful chef or cook takes in preparing a meal. Many cookbooks instruct those who follow their recipes at home to do so. When preparing ingredients based on taste, experience, or the tyranny of a recipe, a cook will sort, wash, chop, dice, mince, julienne, measure, sift, or melt each item for the intended dish. She also will ensure that all pots, pans, cutting boards, knives, stirrers, sorters, and smashers are in place before preparation begins.

My go-to mise en place for nearly every hot dish I cook (yes, even pancakes) prioritizes garlic and onions. My taste for these members of the allium family, including leeks and chives, originated not in my childhood home, but in Italy. When I was nineteen and spending my junior year of college in Florence, Italy, the meals I ate underscored the flavorful advantage of these vegetables.

I lived as a paying guest with the Chellini family with whom I shared lunch and dinner daily in their dining room. The table and chairs dated to the late 18th century. A clean cloth draped the table at every meal. Each place setting included a finger bowl, which I mistook at my first dinner for a basin to wash my piece of fruit.

Lunch was our principal meal. A few times a week we ate meat—a scaloppini of some kind, tasty and redolent of onion and garlic, but otherwise not identifiable, or we had chicken, goose, or pork. The head of family, whom we addressed as Signorina Clara, thought I eschewed pork dishes and without consulting me, substituted a pan-fried or boiled egg. I could not persuade her to share the pork. She assured me my parents would approve of her decision. She didn’t know my parents, especially my father’s love of Chinese take-out. At least the egg came with caramelized onion.  

The rest of the week we had risotto or pasta for lunch. Those helpings were generous. The pasta sauce always had a soffritto base (soffritto meaning under-fried or fried slowly)—including white wine, carrot, olive oil, minced onion or fennel, garlic, or other aromatic herbs. Sometimes Signorina Clara threw in something crunchy like toasted pine nuts or bits of leftover pancetta, which she apparently did not regard as pork, and she passed the Parmigiano cheese to top it off. Risotto, the rice-based alternative main dish became more interesting whenever it included some seafood, pancetta, or pistachios. Always a hint of onion and garlic flavored every mouthful.

According to the 20th Century food writer, Patience Gray, fragrant things in your food, “particularly garlic, basil, parsley [are] a tremendous antidote to depression.” She writes that they alter one’s being “from sighing with fatigue to inhaling with pleasure.” I agree. Whenever I turn the light on in my kitchen and assemble my mise en place for whatever I plan to roast, sauté, or braise, I look forward to the aroma of chopped or minced allium rising with the steam from my pan. It portends both an improved mood and a ready appetite.

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