I’m in the homestretch of my culinary degree, taking my final make-or-break practical exam just before Thanksgiving. Think of an episode of Iron Chef, except no helpers, a bit more time, and a very specific menu (creativity is not encouraged). Every week we make one element from the test, and get graded accordingly. And every week, I've gotten points taken off on one single issue: flavor.

“But chef!” I say, exasperated, “I’m doing exactly what it says in the book.” “Yeah,” he replies, “but it still has to taste good.”

I’m discovering that cooking and really cultivating flavor aren't mutually exclusive. You can make a whole meal without paying attention to the smaller details—getting a nice brown crust on meats before braising, tasting as you go so you can dial up the heat or garlic or acid in a dish—and it can make all the difference in the world in terms of the finished product.

A few things I've learned in the past few weeks:

Steep your stock. I love a carton of unsalted chicken stock, but it can be a little one note on its own, especially in broth-y soups. Heating the stock over low heat for a few minutes with a couple thyme sprigs, parsley stems, a garlic clove, or a strip of lemon peel can help balance it out.

Use those wings!  If roasting a whole chicken, trim off the wings before putting the bird in the oven. Give them a good sear, then put the pan in the oven with the whole chicken for 5 to 10 minutes. Add the wings to the liquid you’ll use for the pan sauce.

Carrots? Peel ‘em. It seems fussy, but carrot peels have a bitter flavor. A sautéed dice of carrot, celery, and onion is the base for so many dishes, and that flavor will carry through right to the end.