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Because it’s strange and beautiful and hot, people from everywhere converge on Florida and they bring their cuisine and their traditions with them. The Zest celebrates the intersection of food and communities in the Sunshine State.

How to prepare restaurant-quality meals at home: Advice from Chef Dennis Littley

Chef Dennis Littley of the website Ask Chef Dennis shares advice for selecting a recipe, simple ways to add flavor to a dish and the importance of knowing when to break the rules.

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Today we’re geeking out on the details that can help your home-cooked meals taste more like restaurant-quality creations. For advice, we turned to Chef Dennis Littley, the food and travel blogger behind Ask Chef Dennis.

After a career in Kissimmee, Dennis recently relocated to New Jersey. But he fondly remembers the attention to service he experienced in tourist towns like Orlando, St. Pete Beach and St. Augustine.

“It’s just a slower pace in Florida, and it’s 100 percent about the hospitality industry,” Dennis says.

To enjoy restaurant-quality meals and hospitality at home, Dennis offers these tips.

Simplify your kitchen: Most restaurant food is ready in under 30 minutes, and your home-cooked meals should be, too. Focus on making uncomplicated dishes that come together quickly, and don’t bother with gadgets like air fryers and Instant Pots. All you need is a good saute pan. Learning to cook faster will also inspire you to cook at home more often.

Cook what you like to eat. “It’s not rocket science. It’s not etched in stone. You can change the recipe. If it’s not baking—baking is chemistry—if it’s not baking, you can adapt the recipe to use what you like in it,” Dennis says. “And that’s the biggest thing. People don’t like to cook because a lot of times, they cook with ingredients they don’t like to eat.” For instance, if you hate broccoli, then use asparagus instead. “It’s not going to kill the dish.”

Start with produce. Before planning your meal, visit the market to see which fresh, local produce is available. Buy organic if your budget allows. Look for items you haven’t seen in awhile, which means they are back in season, and plan your protein and grain around the produce. “Pick the things that you like to eat,” Dennis reiterates.

Use butter and oil strategically. Finish pasta and other dishes with a drizzle of butter or olive oil at the end of cooking. “That’s what you’re doing to taste it,” Dennis says. To find a good olive oil, read the label to ensure that the oil came from a single origin, such as Spain or Greece, rather than from multiple locations. Avoid clear bottles; the bottle should be opaque so light can’t get inside. Store the oil in a dark place at room temperature.

Soup up your supper. “One of the things to cook like a restaurant chef are soup bases,” Dennis says. When a recipe calls for water, use a soup base such as Minor’s (“the industry standard,” Dennis says) or Better Than Bouillon to add more flavor. Soup bases contain salt, so leave out the salt if your recipe calls for it.

Revamp your rice. Instead of cooking rice on the stovetop, try making it in the oven. It will be fluffy, not sticky. And of course, use a soup base in place of water. “Never make rice with just water,” Dennis says. “Oh my god, no.”

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