Everyone wants to know how to cook like a professional chef. But you don't need to go to culinary school to whip up a tasty, fresh meal like you'd order at a swanky restaurant. All you need is a little bit of cash and a lot of common sense.
Buy fresh, local produce instead of canned or jarred foods. Fresh is the key word here. Don't use canned fruits or vegetables, because they'll be unpleasantly discolored from the canning process and much too high in sodium. For maximum taste and health, you want to be able to control the amount of salt in each meal you prepare. Always go fresh. If you have to, frozen veggies (especially spinach), is an option. But fresh is always recommended.
Avoid the packaged stuff. A general rule is that if it has a long shelf-life, it's not something you'd find in a good quality restaurant. Stay away from packaged, par-boiled rice or pasta dishes, seasonings, dressings, sauces, dips, or anything that contains ingredients you can't pronounce. A lot of these are just chemicals and fillers that aren't good for the body and simply don't taste fresh. Spices, however, are much different. These add instant flavor and depth to your meal without preservatives or additives such as MSG. Some good dried spices you may find yourself using include chipotle seasoning, which adds a spicy and smoky dusting of flavor to chicken, beef, and other meats; cayenne pepper, which is very hot but the perfect companion to Mexican or Tex-Mex dishes; and cinnamon, which seems to be one of the most beloved spices because of its sweet, comforting flavor and scent.
Use coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Why? Because the flavors are significantly fresher than the "stuff" in those salt and pepper packets you find at the fast-food chains. Good salt and pepper are the two basic seasonings every home cook should have on hand at all times. Use them a lot. You'll realize that salt and pepper, in the right proportions, do more to enhance a meal than any artificial sauce or spread.
Choose olive oil and butter instead of cheap-quality oils. Olive oil and butter are the two favorite fats of most chefs. Olive oil has a fruity, smooth flavor and enhances the flavor of any salad, pasta sauce, or sauteéd meat. Butter, used in moderation, is also a very delicious and natural ingredient that many chefs use on a regular basis. You won't pack on the pounds if you use it sparingly; a little dab of whipped butter on a baked potato won't hurt.
Go with fresh meat and fish rather than frozen. If you're in the mood to cook a nice piece of salmon for dinner tonight, visit your local fish market instead of the freezer section of your grocery store. A fresh piece of fish has a light and delicious quality to it, as opposed to something you have to defrost in the microwave before you cook it. The same goes for any other kind of seafood, such as shrimp, or meat such as chicken or turkey.
Buy it at the specialty market. Fresh cheeses, sausages, and provisional meats are best bought at a market that specializes in these and only these products. For example, take a trip to the cheese shop if you're looking for the best quality Parmigiano Reggiano. Don't just pick it up at the supermarket. Cheese shops carry only the freshest, highest quality cheeses. And the experts who work there can help you if you have any questions about which cheeses to buy.
Always have fresh herbs on hand. It's a great idea to grow fresh herbs on your windowsill so you have them all year round and don't have to go out and buy them when you want to quickly whip up a meal. Basil, rosemary, thyme, sage, parsley...these herbs--fresh, not dried--can make a total difference in the way your food looks and tastes. One sprinkle of those gorgeous green herbs and you'll easily feel like you're in a restaurant.
Use your good dishware. If you've collected all the best ingredients, why not use the best plates and silverware you've got to serve it on? You'll never see paper or plastic plates in a superior restaurant! Treat yourself. You deserve a five-star quality meal. The "nice" dishes shouldn't be for company, they should be for you also.
Once you follow these tips, you'll realize how much you love cooking with fresh, local and high-quality ingredients. It may seem like you're spending more money, but you're actually saving money. If you were to dine at a pricey restaurant, your pockets will be empty by the end of the night--especially after driving to the restaurant, spending money on the meal and leaving a tip for the server. Save the few extra bucks. Make magic in your own kitchen!