Assuming that a recipe itself is sound, there are 10 things everyone can do to ensure a meal is a success:
1. READ THE RECIPE ALL THE WAY THROUGH.
I know, it's like the car manual and the VCR instructions. Who wants to take the time? But this is one area where a few extra minutes at the front end saves an hour of racing to a cooking supply store 10 minutes before the guests arrive to get the food mill you didn't know you'd need.
2. ASSEMBLE EVERYTHING BEFORE YOU START COOKING.
In the professional realm, this is mise en place, or "put in place," and no chef would try to get through the evening's service without it. That means chopping, dicing and measuring ahead, so the cooking part will be a breeze. None of that sauteing with one hand while trying to reach into a cupboard for cumin with the other.
3. TAKE BAKING MEASUREMENTS SERIOUSLY.
Use a scoop to put flour into the measuring cup, and then level off with a straight-edged knife or ruler. Use a plastic or glass cup that you can see through to get an accurate liquid measure. Use a rubber spatula to pack down shortening, brown sugar and peanut butter.
4. DON'T BE AFRAID TO FOLLOW YOUR INSTINCTS.
If a recipe sounds off, it probably is. For instance, when I made spinach and goat cheese strudels, my gut said that \-inch of phyllo folded over wasn't going to hold the filling in. Sure enough, it didn't. Not all recipes are tested before they're printed, so use your judgment.
5. DON'T BE AFRAID TO MAKE FLAVOR SUBSTITUTIONS.
Not a fan of blue cheese? Go ahead and try goat. Think rosemary is too strong? Try thyme instead. If it's a flavor combination you like, it'll work.
6. GET ONE RELIABLE, ALL-PURPOSE COOKBOOK FOR BASICS.
That way if a recipe calls for hollandaise, you already have a source for it that you trust and have used successfully. Some good options include The Joy of Cooking, edited by Beth Wareham; The New Best Recipe, by the editors of Cook's Illustrated; How to Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman; or The Way to Cook, by Julia Child.
7. PLATE THE DISH AHEAD.
Practice how you'll put all of the elements on the plate so that when the food is hot and ready you're not struggling with making it look nice. Certainly you don't need to do this for family dinner every night, but for dinner parties it will make those last minutes easier.
8. LEARN WHAT CAN HOLD IN THE OVEN OR ON THE STOVE.
You don't think restaurants whip up sides all at the last minute, do you? Many components, such as poached eggs, mashed potatoes, pasta and sauce bases, are prepped ahead and then held on a steam table.
9. DON'T TRY A NEW RECIPE FOR YOUR DAUGHTER'S BABY SHOWER BRUNCH OR YOUR HUSBAND'S 50TH BIRTHDAY PARTY.
Just don't. If you must, test the new dish the week before.
10. HAVE A SENSE OF HUMOR.
Life is filled with devastating events, but everyone survives dishes that don't turn out. Always have a backup and keep the number for a restaurant that delivers at hand.