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Gourmet Dinners in 15 Minutes

Try any of these easy techniques―all secrets of professional chefs―and take dinner to the next level in no time.

By Jane Kirby


  • Use fresh produce whenever possible. You may have to rely on frozen peas year-round, but don't settle for woolly tomatoes in January, pulpy apples in April, or shriveled melons in November. Buy what's in season; it will taste much better.
  • Invest in the best ingredients you can afford. Good-quality pasta, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar do make a difference (see Upgrade Your Pantry Staples for suggestions on what to buy).
  • Rethink a classic. Old-fashioned recipes become fresh with new ingredients. Add Cheddar to mashed potatoes; substitute smoked fish for beef in hash.
  • Cross over cuisines. Mix ingredients and techniques from different cultures. Toss American barbecued pork into a stir-fry or Greek Feta cheese into a French frisee salad.
  • Keep it simple. Don't use too many different flavorings in a single dish.
  • Invest in one or two heavy stainless-steel pans with aluminum or copper cores. They will take a higher heat so that you can cook and reduce sauces more quickly. Cast-iron pans are also a good choice.
  • Make a sauce. Don't leave caramelized bits of meat or fish behind. Scrape them free and add 1 cup of broth or wine. Boil the sauce until it is reduced by half.
  • Intensify a flavor. "Cooking down" a food so that the water evaporates intensifies flavor. Reduce a cup of aged balsamic vinegar or orange juice to a syrup and drizzle it over grilled meat. Add a tablespoon of sugar to either reduction to make a savory topping for ice cream and fruit.
  • Combine sweet and salty. Competing tastes can balance each other, making the overall flavor of a dish fuller and deeper. Think salty peanuts and caramel popcorn, or salt on an ear of young corn.
  • Combine sweet and savory. Use seasonings where they are least expected, like a pinch of cayenne pepper in chocolate cake or red onions with oranges.
  • Don't overcook. This is especially true with fish and vegetables. Fish should be just beginning to flake, and vegetables should be tender-crisp.

More Trade Secrets―with Recipes

Ready to try out some of these rules? Here are four more restaurant-inspired tricks, with recipes to help you put them into practice.

The trade secret: Layer a single flavor. Use a single food in several variations to reinforce its flavor in a dish.
The recipe: Linguine With Clam Sauce 

The trade secret: Cook the unexpected. When warmed or cooked, ingredients that are usually served raw can dazzle.
The recipe: Sea Bass and Cucumbers in Champagne Sauce 

The trade secret: Change the cooking method. Elevate everyday ingredients by cooking them in new ways.
The recipe: Chicken Baked in Parchment 

The trade secret: Turn up the heat. Don't be afraid of a very hot skillet. You need high heat to sear and caramelize meat and fish properly.
The recipe: Pan-Seared Steak Au Poivre

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Quick Tip

Aluminum foil and plastic wrap in a drawer

The flan can be baked up to 3 days in advance; refrigerate, loosely covered with plastic wrap. Unmold just before serving.