Use a hot pan
How do you get that perfect sear, and how do you keep meat and fish from sticking to the pan? The answer: A hot pan. The fact is that one of the first things you learn in culinary school is to preheat your pan well, before adding oil or the food item you plan to cook. It’s better for a good sear and ensures even cooking. Simply allow the pan to come up to heat over the burner on your stove, but be careful to warn anyone else in the kitchen that the pan is hot.
Season while you work
I can’t tell you how many times I’m asked, “What did you add to this to make it so good?” My answer is usually salt. Learning to properly season food takes time, but often the result of poor seasoning is a boring dish. Salt brings out a food’s flavor, simply making it taste more like itself. Secondly, seasoning should take place during the cooking process, not after. A pinch of salt when you sweat your onions, another pinch when you add the main ingredient, and tasting a few minutes before the dish is complete to test for perfect seasoning is the key to making perfectly seasoned meals.
A little heat goes a long way
A small amount of perceptible heat can add complexity and a memorable finish to most dishes. Whether it be some pepper flakes added to a red sauce or a “knife point” of cayenne added to a tuna salad, putting a small amount of heat adds another dimension to many dishes that people take for granted -- just don’t overdo it.
If someone ever asked me the secret to my success when cooking multi-course meals in someone’s home with perfect timing, I’d say par-cook. This is a regular practice for ingredients in restaurants and can easily be applied at home. If a sauce takes 30 minutes from start to finish, it’s usually because you’re waiting for multiple ingredients to cook. Imagine if the pancetta was cooked off and put to the side or the mushrooms were already sautéed. You can’t keep these items for long, but as long as you cook and then cool them quickly, they can easily be used through the course of an evening.
Use an ice bath
The best part about using an ice bath is that you also stabilize the color of the food product. Let’s say you’re making an asparagus risotto and want the tips to be a perfect, vibrant green when they are plated. Instead of cooking them with the risotto, blanch them in the stock before you even start the risotto. Then when they are almost but not quite done, move them to an ice bath to quickly cool and stabilize the color. Take them out of the bath within a minute and allow them to stay cold. Then add them in again for the last minute of cooking with your risotto. Perfect! You can use this process with nearly any vegetable.
There are many more tips I have up my sleeve, but I’m sure this is enough to get you started and keep you experimenting for a while.