It's no secret that I am still a chef-in-training. I can follow a recipe as long as it doesn't use fancy words or techniques and not explain them. My measure of a true chef is someone who can walk into any kitchen and whip something up using the knowledge they already have and the ingredients on hand. It also helps if they know the purposes of things, like baking soda or baking powder (I blindly add these things to my baking without ever knowing exactly what they're doing in there).
I do believe that one way to become a better cook is to simply follow recipes, trying many new ones. Eventually you will learn from them. I am at least at the point where I can alter and combine existing recipes. I do keep my family fed with a basically healthy and balanced diet. More and more, the dinners I make are coming from "whole" ingredients as opposed to boxes (although we definitely still use our fair share of Stauffer's, Lipton side dishes, Kraft mac-n-cheese, etc.) My pantry is better stocked with ingredients and seasonings so that, in order to make a new recipe, I actually don't have to buy the entire ingredient list at the grocery store. I remember a time, soon after Alexander was born, that my brother and his partner visited and decided to make dinner for us at our place. I had to tell them that the only spices we had were salt, pepper, and Italian Seasoning. Now, a spice rack is becoming a necessity as I am constantly annoyed while trying to sort my way through myriad seasonings to find the one I am looking for.
Over the past five years I've also found that "formulas" can be pretty helpful. For example, my dad and brother came up with this one "Protein+ carb+ veggie+ cream of something soup=casserole." So, for example, Tuna+ noodles+ peas+ cream of mushroom soup= Tuna Noodle Casserole. Or, Chicken+ Rice+ broccoli+ Cream of Broccoli Soup= "Fluffy Chicken and Rice." The possibilities are endless.
The formula that I've been using a lot lately is "Chicken breasts+ something wet+ something crunchy= good baked chicken" I thaw out some chicken breasts, dip them in something wet (milk, egg, garlic-infused olive oil, ranch dressing, cream of chicken soup) and then dip in something crunchy (Parmesan cheese and bread crumbs, crushed BBQ chips, crushed cheese crackers, crushed French's onions) and bake. So easy, so good. The kids have eaten every one of these combinations eagerly, especially when given something to dip the chicken in.
So, here is my challenge for you. No reward; it's not a contest. Just help me out, here. Share your knowledge. Do you have a great "formula" like the ones above? Or some great cooking "rule?" I'd love to benefit from your experience! THANKS!