Michael Ruhlman's new sideblog based on his new book, The Elements of Cooking: Translating the Chef's Craft for Every Kitchen, is a wonderful way to learn more about the basics of cooking, the foundational building blocks upon which any cook -- whether professional chef or someone like me, who just cooks at home for family and friends -- creates her own flavor and style of cooking.
I found that when I grasped the basics of how certain foods worked -- for example, the different ways garlic will cook: sauteed, toasted, roasted, etc., depending on the heat of your pan and the way you prep it -- I was a better cook and was better able to use and interpret recipes and create dishes on my own.
For me, I realized somewhere along the way that nearly every dish I cook has the same, simple beginnings: a few glugs of olive oil in a medium-hot pan, chopped garlic, and chopped onion. From there, the dish could turn into anything. Add bell pepper and cumin and it is the base for my black beans. Add thyme and rosemary and it's a more sophisticated chicken or steak dish. Now I knew how to improvise and add my own flair to my food.
Anyway, I highly recommend reading Ruhlman's blog...one of his recent posts is on water, which seems so simple, but that bit at the end is something all of us have needed to or could stand to learn at some point:
Keeping the effects of water in mind will help you sauté better. The browning of food adds flavor to the food. But food won’t brown at low temperatures/when water is present. So if you want a piece of meat to brown, make sure its surface is dry. If you want mushrooms to brown, they have to go into a pan that will brown them before they begin releasing their water. Water is fundamental to life and fundamental to cooking.