First, let me clarify a few things: 

1) I am not a culinary school graduate. 
2) I prefer my food to be pretty close to how I originally bought it; no heavy sauces, no overcooking. I like to keep it simple; yet have variety every now and then.
3) I take for granted the fact that I both know how to and enjoy cooking, baking, preparing meals.  I’ve learned that not everyone grew up with parents and grandparents that were always in the kitchen preparing meals from scratch – not boxed, canned, or frozen dinners.
4) If I had a dollar for every time I’ve gotten the questions; “How do I make acorn squash? What do I do with brussel sprouts? What is a spaghetti squash? How do you marinate your chicken?” I would be vacationing on an island in Tahiti for an entire year.
Thus, I am sharing all my Cooking Secrets with you in this post! Here we go; I’ll try to keep this short so you can get in the kitchen and start practicing!
1. I hardly ever follow a recipe 100%.  Pictured above are just some of the cookbooks I use as well as the internet.  Here’s a hint. Don’t know how to make acorn squash or a turkey sauté? GOOGLE IT.  Simple.  Within seconds you have over 50 recipes to choose from.  Still don’t know what to do?…….Read on….
2. Pick the ingredients that attract you to the recipe the most.  For example, the other day I posted a picture of homemade chili on my Instagram feed. I had some requests for the recipe, but honestly I can’t tell you exactly what I used.  I can tell you the recipe(s) that I pulled pieces from – this is what I do with most of my creations. I search recipes, look through my cookbooks for what I want to prepare and from there I select what ingredients I either have and/or am willing to omit to create my own (in most cases, healthier) version.  
3. What ingredients are important to keep? What can I omit?  
Sidenote: baking recipes should be followed 100% in most cases – I’ll save my tips for those for a separate post.
Depending on the recipe and what it is that you are making, there are ingredients that are important to the end result.  I typically use most of the suggested spices, the main ingredient (the protein source or veggie/starch, etc) and then add or take away the things I’m willing to live without.  Let’s use this recipe as an example: 
Butternut squash is one of my favorite carb sources. I like to spray it with organic grapeseed oil cooking spray, toss it in cinnamon, roast it and combine it with fresh spinach, pecans or walnuts and serve it alongside a protein.  This recipe includes: butternut squash, maple syrup, bacon, bacon fat, and pecans.  Because I know that the squash alone is already sweet, the first ingredient I will cut from the list of ingredients is maple syrup.  While it may add amazing flavor, it’s unnecessary and masks the natural sweetness of butternut squash.  Bacon, bacon fat, and pecans lend three fat sources and the use of all of them is also unnecessary.  If you want to keep the bacon flavor; use the bacon pieces in the recipe and get rid of the bacon fat and keep the pecans.  Or use half the bacon it calls for and all of the pecans, etc.  I know not everyone chooses to eat the way I do, or cook the way I do, and this probably isn’t the best recipe to dissect, but I’m just trying to illustrate that sometimes you don’t have to follow a recipe blindly.
In most cases, if you’re making a sauté or roast, or baking something in the oven and it calls for oil or butter to “coat the pan” you really don’t need it. Especially if you use non-stick, calphalon cookware or organic cooking sprays.  Speaking of sautés…..
4. Anything goes when making sautés, chili, hash, etc.
One of the easiest, fastest, and tastiest dinners I make is a protein sauté. Choose a protein: ground beef, turkey, chicken, sauté it in a pan with whatever spices you prefer, add any or all of grated or chopped zucchini, carrots, spinach, squash, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, mushrooms, sweet potato, butternut squash, asparagus, etc….. Top with avocado or cheese (if it fits your dietary allowances) and you’ve got an easy, quick, nutritionally balanced meal. Same goes for chili. Pick a protein, choose your spices, chop and add any veggies or potato you desire, google a recipe for cooking instructions and time and BAM – you’ve just created your own chili recipe.
5. But what do you marinate your meat in?
This is a question I get often.  The thought of people marinating meat in Italian dressing makes me a bit sad – and Rick used to make all of our meat this way. How boring. And hello, soybean oil as the first ingredient – YUCK! Here’s what I typically do for chicken/turkey: poke holes in it, drizzle either mustard or balsamic vinegar over it, add spices, done. Or I poke holes in it, squeeze fresh lemon, or lime juice, add spices, done.  Depending on my mood or flavor I’m craving dictates what spices I use. Some of my favorites are lemon pepper, tarragon, cayenne, cumin, pepper, garlic, and any Ms.Dash seasoning.  For fish I always squeeze fresh lemon or lime juice then add either dill, ginger, lemon pepper, pepper, garlic, etc…. For beef I use pepper, garlic, cumin, cayenne, sometimes nutmeg – again depends on my mood.
6. Roasting vegetables.
Most of the time I coat the veggies with either: fresh lemon juice, Bragg’s coconut aminos, or organic cooking spray.  Then I add whatever seasonings I’m in the mood for, lay the veggies on a pan and roast them between 350-400 degrees for about 15-20 minutes, depending on the vegetable.  
7. Mashed Cauliflower, Acorn Squash, Quinoa.
To add flavor to my mashed cauliflower and quinoa I replace half of the water with low sodium vegetable or chicken broth and then season with celery seed, pepper, and other seasonings. I’ve discovered that celery seed really is a “money” ingredient to both mashed cauliflower and quinoa.  
Acorn squash and actually any winter squash can be as versatile as you want it to be.  Again, look for various recipes, compare them, figure out what attracts you most to each recipe, pick the ingredients you prefer, omit the ones that don’t add much significance and go for it….
8. Trial and Error.
Really, it all comes down to just trial and error and experimenting on your own in the kitchen.  You win some, you lose some.  It’s all part of  learning to cook; enjoying the process. Don’t make it harder than it is.  And when all else fails; K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple, Silly! Stick to the basics if that’s what you’re comfortable with.
I’d love to know your favorite ways to create recipes and/or modify existing ones.  Leave a comment here or on my Tell Me Mel Facebook page!