It’s not what you do, but how you do it.
This one phrase pretty much defines cooking. You could use some of the most expensive ingredients on Earth to cook your favorite dish, but depending on how you do it, it could either be a fantastic creation or the most glorious of epic fails.
Risotto is a classic example. It's simple enough in theory: cook some rice in stock, add yummy ingredients and enjoy.
The Glorious Fail Version
Sauté some chopped onions and garlic in a pan, pour in some wine (forgetting to reduce), add your Arborio rice, cover with chicken stock and simmer until rice is cooked. Finish with expensive Parmesan. The end result is gummy rice with a somewhat boozy taste and little flavor development. You did the steps more or less in the correct order, but the execution of the steps resulted in a less than appetizing meal.
The Fantastic Creation Version
Evenly dice your onions and sweat them in some olive oil or butter in a heavy bottom pan over medium heat until translucent. Add in your Arborio rice and gently toast in the butter or oil and after the rice has toasted for a minute or so, add in minced garlic and sauté until fragrant. Next, deglaze with dry white wine, ideally Italian, and reduce until the pan is almost dry. Pour in just enough stock to cover the rice and gently stir. This is where the attention to detail becomes paramount. You have to stir the pot every minute or so to get the proper final consistency of the risotto (the starch in the rice breaks down as you cook it and thickens the dish). As the rice cooks and absorbs the stock, you will have to keep adding more, but just enough to cover the rice again. The longer the rice cooks, the less stock you should add each time.
For the final consistency, you should be able to “draw a line” through the risotto, but not “make a mountain” out of it. This means it is thick enough to hold its form for a few seconds, but not so thick you can pile it in the middle of the pan. The rice itself should be cooked through, but still a little al dente. I always add Parmesan to my risotto, so I leave it a little on the thinner side because the cheese will thicken it up a little more. Now is the time to add fresh herbs: parsley, tarragon or basil depending on your preference. If you add them too early in the cooking process, the fresh, bright flavors will cook off and leave you with an off green color to your risotto.
If you want to add some roasted butternut squash or mushrooms as my wife usually does, I do this toward the end. Squash can overcook rather quickly and turn into a mushy paste. Also, these ingredients will affect the color of the risotto, and I like to keep the color of my risotto a light to golden brown for presentation; it makes the other colors pop when you plate it.
This is why grandmothers’ food tasted so good. They spent years making the same dishes over and over, making small changes each time to arrive at perfection.
What dish in your cooking repertoire have you tweaked to perfection?