Let's suppose you're a pretty good home cook. Your roast chicken is crisp and succulent. Your vegetables are full of life. Your pasta and rice taste just right. You can even cook fish without overdoing it.

But when you think about making a meal that will wow guests--not just your loved ones--you don't really feel confident. Shouldn't it taste fabulous, look impressive and, of course, be something you can get to the table without the assistance of a kitchen staff?

Well, there is a way to start with the experience that you already have and grow as a cook in measured stages, without going to cooking school. But--no surprise--it requires advance planning, shopping and practice. (After all, recipes may spell out instructions, but they usually don't tell you how to plan your time, avoid mistakes and develop confidence.)

The secret is building on what you know. The chefs who turn out successful meals every day understand that. Jamie Stachowski, the chef at Pesce near Dupont Circle, suggested a progressive three-stage approach for readers of the Food section. This evolving menu takes the home cook from a basic family meal to a dressier dish for friends to a knockout punch for special occasions.

Each stage uses the same basic ingredients and provides the platform for the next, the idea being that once you've mastered the timing and techniques of the simpler presentation, you've created a foundation for success at the next level. As the stages progress, the spices, sauces, garnishes and presentation (or "plating" as chefs call it) are what make the difference.

Stachowski's Stage 1 is a basic fish, rice and vegetable meal--a homey dish that's made more interesting by using basmati rice and by enlivening an everyday vegetable (cauliflower) with gentle Indian flavors.

Stage 2 kicks the rice up a notch with more Asian touches, an Indian-style sauce and a simple garnish.

Stage 3 adds a lively Asian-style salsa and flavor-enhancing decorative oils.

"Once you do something over and over, you learn little tricks," says Stachowski. "Like how to work with the spatula and handle the fish, or how long to leave it in your oven. You'll have more confidence, and the next time you do it you'll spend less mental energy on Stage 1 and have it to use for the extra steps in Stage 2 and the salsa and the plating in Stage 3. It makes it more interesting for you and your guests."

A couple of words of caution: For both speed and accuracy, it's almost always a good idea to chop, slice and measure in advance for your first time out. That way, you can figure out shortcuts for the second go-round.

As you ascend the stages, you have to factor in time for shopping for the more exotic ingredients. So read the lists of ingredients carefully and make sure you have what you need ahead of time.

And, finally, many of you may feel pretty confident already. So jump in at whatever stage appeals to you.

Stage 1: A Dish For Family

Roasted Chilean Sea Bass Bombay

(4 servings)

Time frame. About an hour: 10 minutes for chopping the onion, cutting up the cauliflower and measuring the seasonings; 20 minutes to cook the rice; 15 to 20 minutes for the cauliflower; 15 minutes for the fish. Begin cooking the fish after you have completed cooking the rice and cauliflower.

Equipment: A slotted, flared fish spatula, or a long, thin cake-icing spatula.

Special ingredients: basmati rice, chickpea flour, grapeseed oil.

For the rice:

1 cup basmati rice*

1 tablespoon grapeseed oil

1/2 cup chopped onions

About 1 1/2 cups water

Salt to taste

Rinse the rice thoroughly three times.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the onions and saute until translucent. Add the rice and stir to completely coat with the onion-oil mixture. Add the water and bring to a boil. Add a dash of salt, reduce the heat to low and cover. Cook for 15 minutes; remove from the heat until the other components of the meal are done.

*NOTE : Basmati is a long-grain rice with a perfumey, nutlike flavor that is grown in the Himalayas. It can be found in Indian and Middle Eastern markets and some supermarkets. Stachowski prefers Elephant Brand.

For the cauliflower:

1 1/2 tablespoons curry powder

1 1/2 tablespoons chickpea flour*

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 tablespoon butter

1 head cauliflower (about 1 pound), cut into small florets about 1 inch in diameter

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 tablespoons chopped chives or cilantro

In a small bowl, mix together the curry powder and chickpea flour.

In a 10-inch skillet over medium heat, heat the oil and butter until the butter is melted. Add the cauliflower and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, 7 to 8 minutes.

Sprinkle the cauliflower with 1 tablespoon of the curry-chickpea flour mixture; salt and pepper to taste; reserve the remaining curry-chickpea flour for the fish. Continue cooking until the cauliflower is tender, another 7 to 8 minutes. Remove from the heat. Sprinkle with the chives or cilantro. Set aside until the other components of the meal are done.

*NOTE : Chickpea flour is available at some Indian and Middle Eastern markets. If you can't find it, take a handful of dried chickpeas or yellow split peas and pulverize them in a coffee or spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle.

For the fish:

1 tablespoon curry-chickpea flour mixture reserved from preceding step

Four 6-ounce sea bass fillets, skin on (may substitute halibut)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 tablespoons grapeseed oil

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Season the fish with salt and pepper to taste. Lightly dust each fillet on all sides with the curry-chickpea flour mixture.

In an ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil. Add the fish, skin-side down, and sear until lightly browned on one side. Turn the fish; transfer the pan to the oven and roast in the preheated oven until cooked through (about 12 minutes for medium).

For the plating:

1 orange, thinly sliced

1 lemon, thinly sliced

Have ready 4 warmed plates. Place the rice in the center of each plate (see chef's tip). Arrange the cauliflower around the rice. Place the fillet skin-side up on top of the rice. Garnish with lemon and orange slices.

Stage 2: For Friends

Time frame. About an hour: 30 minutes for the more elaborate rice preparation, 15 minutes for the cauliflower and about 15 minutes for the fish. As above, begin cooking the fish after you have completed cooking the rice and cauliflower. Then while the fish is roasting, prepare the yogurt sauce.

Equipment: Stage 1 equipment plus a blender.

Special ingredients: Stage 1 ingredients plus Thai basil; star anise (optional); and onion, sunflower or baby beet sprouts.

For the rice:

1 cup basmati rice

1 tablespoon grapeseed oil

1/2 cup sunflower seeds

1 teaspoon celery seeds or star anise*

1 sprig or a few leaves of Thai basil*

1/2 cup chopped onions

1 1/2 cups water

Salt to taste

Rinse the rice thoroughly three times.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the sunflower seeds and celery seeds or star anise and cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until the seeds are lightly toasted. Add the basil and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.

Add the onions and saute, stirring occasionally, until translucent. Add the rice and stir to completely coat the rice with the onion-oil mixture. Add the water (it should reach just below the surface of the rice) and bring to a boil. Add a dash of salt, reduce the heat to low and cover. Cook for 15 minutes; remove from the heat until the other components of the meal are done. When ready to serve, fluff with a fork.

For the cauliflower:

Prepare as in Stage 1.

For the fish:

Prepare as in Stage 1.

* NOTE: Star anise is a star-shaped pod that imparts a slight licorice flavor. Thai basil may not be easy to find. You can substitute regular basil and cut the leaves into thin strips. Both are available in Asian markets and some specialty stores.

For the yogurt sauce:

2 sprigs or several leaves of Thai basil

1 sprig mint

1 1/2 cups plain yogurt

Salt to taste

1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice

In a food processor or blender, process the basil, mint and yogurt until pureed. Add a dash of salt and lemon juice and pulse to blend. (May also mince the herbs, mix them into the yogurt, then stir in the salt and lemon juice.)

For the plating:

1 pint onion, sunflower or baby beet sprouts (or a mixture)

Place the rice, cauliflower and fish on the plate as in Stage 1, but keep the rice slightly off center. Spoon about 1 tablespoon of the yogurt sauce over the fish and drizzle about 1/2 tablespoon onto the plate. Sprinkle some sprouts over the fish, letting some fall across the plate.

Stage 3: For a Special Occasion

Time frame. The day before: 30 to 40 minutes to prepare the red pepper oil and 15 minutes for the curry oil. The day of the dinner: About an hour for the main ingredients and yogurt sauce, as in Stage 2; 15 minutes for the salsa. The individual preparations are still not difficult, but you may need to practice working with squeeze bottles.

Equipment: Stage 1 and 2 equipment plus a small funnel, juicer (or blender and a fine sieve), 2 squeeze bottles

Special ingredients: Stage 1 and 2 ingredients plus 1 ripe papaya, Asian fish sauce and garlic chili paste.

For the curry oil:

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon grapeseed oil

1/4 cup curry powder

Dash ground turmeric

In a small saucepan over low heat, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil. Add the curry and turmeric and cook, stirring constantly, for 3 to 5 minutes to lightly toast the spices. Add the remaining 1 cup of the oil and cook, stirring occasionally, 7 to 10 minutes to infuse the oil with the flavor of the spices. (The oil will take on a bright yellow hue.) Transfer to a bowl, cover tightly and refrigerate. The oil must be prepared at least 8 hours ahead of time to allow the spices to settle to the bottom. Then tilt the bowl carefully and, leaving sediment behind, pour the oil through a funnel and into a plastic squeeze bottle.

For the red pepper oil:

3 red bell peppers*

1 tablespoon corn syrup

1/4 cup grapeseed oil

Trim the peppers; discard the stems and seeds. Cut the peppers into pieces that will fit into a juicer. Pass through juicer. (If you do not have a juicer, puree in a blender, and pass through a fine sieve; discard the solids.)

In a small saucepan over medium to medium-low heat, bring the pepper juice and corn syrup to a simmer. Reduce heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until reduced to about 1/4 cup, 20 to 30 minutes. (The liquid should have a light syrupy consistency.) Slowly whisk in the oil, adding it in a steady stream, until the mixture is completely combined or emulsified. Transfer to a plastic squeeze bottle and refrigerate for at least 8 hours.

* NOTE: For a smoother-looking sauce, use 4 peppers and 1/2 cup of oil.

For the papaya salsa:

1/4 cup lime juice

1/4 cup fish sauce (nuoc-nam or nam pla)

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon garlic-chili paste (sambal oelek or sambal bajak)*

1 ripe papaya, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch dice

1/2 red onion, finely chopped

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

In a medium bowl, mix together the lime juice, fish sauce, brown sugar and garlic-chili paste. Add the papaya, onion and cilantro and toss to coat. Cover tightly and refrigerate.

*NOTE : Available at Asian markets and some specialty stores.

For the rice:

Prepare as in Stage 2.

For the cauliflower:

Prepare as in Stage 1.

For the fish:

Prepare as in Stage 1.

For the plating:

Plate as in Stage 2, but place the yogurt sauce to the side only. Put a dollop of papaya salsa on the fish, and then top it with the sprouts, as in Stage 2. Swirl a thin line of curry oil around the dish and dot the plate with the pepper oil.

Chef's tip: "At Pesce, I cook all fish medium rare to medium unless otherwise requested.This way the fish retains all its moistness, flavor and tenderness. Purchasing the freshest fish from a reputable retailer is important."

Chef's tip: "We use a simple 3 1/2-inch ring to mold the rice.This also gives you a neat platform on which to plate the fish. Fish is very delicate. It needs a gentle hand--and a spatula--to turn it in the pan and move it to the plate. (Most of the time I pick the fish up with my hands and squeeze it gently to move it, but you'll proably need just a little support underneath.) When you feel confident about that, you're ready to move on to Stage 2."

Chef's tip: "Seasoning the onions takes the basmati rice up another flavor level, and, with the yogurt sauce, embellishes the Indian theme. The sauce and the sprouts make the plate more interesting and give it a more refined appearance."

Chef's tip: "After you've mastered Stage 2 and really want to show your confidence, you can add the papaya salsa and the curry and red pepper decorating oils, which also add flavor. (Kept in a cool dark place, the oils will retain their flavor for weeks.) The finishing touches in Stage 3 are a little more involved but very rewarding. They make the plates look dramatic--a feast rather than just an entree.

"Prepare the salsa and oils in advance. Having them ready will ease plating, which can be the moment of greatest pressure with your guests."

Chef's tip: "A light hand and artful placement will enhance your masterpiece. So will large plates, if you have them. The ones we use are 12 1/2 inches in diameter."