[This story is also posted on my regular weblog, The Aardvark Speaks.]
People generally seem to like what I cook, or at least they never give me any negative feedback (must be my menacing grin, har har). From time to time I'm even asked about my secrets, because even when I tell people the recipe, they sometimes claim that it never turns out as good as when I cooked it.
I have to disappoint you. There are no secrets. There are just a few rules that should be followed, and I'm actually disclosing the most important ones here today because (a) I believe them to be commonsense, and (b) I don't think that the people who didn't follow them so far will suddenly start following them now. Here we go:
Use your tastebuds. Train your tastebuds. Trust your tastebuds. It is vital that you have at least a rough idea of what the ingredients that you throw into the pot do to the overall flavour of the dish. You need to have an idea about their intensity, how they are compatible with other ingredients, and how they change with cooking time and cooking method. For example, it's perfectly possible to completely destroy a lasagna with just one teaspoon origano, while you might still be able to save a dish if you accidentally added an overdose of extra hot chili powder. Something that tastes wonderful with roasted onions may taste terrible with raw onions and vice versa. To learn this, taste often when cooking to a recipe to find out what adding ingredients does to the overall taste. It helps if you have a good memory for tastes and smells.
Unless you're 100% sure of what you're doing, stick 100% to the recipe. A friend complained that her spicy eggplant didin't taste as good as mine, even though she had used "the same recipe". It turned out she had used courgettes instead of eggplant, orange juice instead of lemon juice, had left out the mustard seed because she hadn't had any, and had served them with noodles instead of rice. It was, in short, obviously not the same recipe. Which leads us to the next point:
Some ingredients are there for a reason, some are negotiable. Learn to distinguish between the ingredients that carry the flavour and those which don't. Don't even think for a second that you can substitute ½ cup of olive oil with ½ cup of vegetable oil, whereas the difference between using lime juice or lemon juice, origano or thyme, shallots or onions, or red chilies and green chilies may work sometimes, but can result in disaster at other times. The more experience you have, the more you can estimate when variation is possible and which ingredients must not be substituted. As long as you don't know, either stick to the recipe or be prepared for disaster (even if it doesn't always strike).
The knife makes all the difference. Vegetables and herbs change their taste according to how finely you cut or chop them — generally, the rule is that the finer you chop something, the more intense the taste will be (try this with garlic: whole, coarsely chopped, finely chopped, or squeezed through a garlic press — you can easily put fifty whole cloves into a roast chicken, but you might find four squeezed cloves too intense). Meat will behave differently in the pot depending on how you cut it — it may shrink, dry out, or stay juicy. The final taste of your dish is already decided the moment you cut your ingredients into pieces.
Some pots need to be watched; others can be left alone. Usually, you should stay with your pot while it's on the stove. If you need to do other things, you need to develop a feeling for how much attention your pot needs. Generally, the rule is that the hotter the pot or the fewer liquid in the pot, the more attention it needs. In one episode of The Naked Chef, Jamie Oliver took a portion of extremely finely chopped onion from a blender, threw it into a pan with sizzling hot oil and proceeded to cut three tomatoes without looking at the pan even once. In any real-life kitchen, the onions would have turned into a bitter, most likely blackish-burnt, but at any rate inedible crust. And if you frequently cook rice and don't have the patience to stay with the pot, buy a rice cooker.
Routine is a killer. The more often you cook one particular recipe, the less it's going to taste like the first time. That's in part because you get used to the taste, but also because you're usually more accurate with the recipe the first few times and then become more sloppy or seem to remember things that aren't in the recipe at all. It's a good idea to check the recipe once in a while even if you think you know it in your sleep.
A meal is more than the sum of its parts. What you eat can taste dramatically different depending on the side dishes and even on the drink(s) you serve with it. It's better to serve no wine at all rather than the wrong wine, and if you prepare more than one course, these need to be compatible, too.
So much for today's portion of kitchen wisdom.