Often cooking is about inspiration and experimentation.
It's about testing out an idea even if you're not quite sure it will work. It's about being drawn to a particular ingredient at the supermarket or farmers market and figuring out what to do with it.
At least, I like to pretend that's what cooking is like all the time. That's not exactly accurate, though. More often than I'd like to admit, cooking at home simply becomes executing the recipe I've chosen that night.
There's nothing wrong with that—whatever gets food on the table, man. Plus, there are plenty of people who have trouble just executing recipes for various reasons. Maybe they don't know they should prepare all of the mise en place (setting up everything, i.e. dicing, measuring, etc...) ahead of time or they don't know how to deal with the little nuances of a recipe. Maybe they're just intimidated.
But ironically, in this information age, I go through periods where I feel a distinct lack of inspiration. Now, you can Google thousands upon thousands of recipes in an instant. It's a gift, but it can also be a curse. Recipes, especially those from quality sources like Bon Appetit, offer safety. If you just follow the directions, you get your Spaghetti all'Amatriciana.
There is less safety in experimenting and creating your own recipe from scratch. It's very rare that you're going to nail it on the first try. More likely, you'll produce some barely edible, hot garbage. If you make something that's even mediocre, you're on the right track. But that's how you learn.
Potential edibility and health risks aside, there's a more pressing issue when attempting to create your own dish. Inspiration. Where do you even start? For me, it's usually my cookbooks. Wait, aren't those just recipes!?! The thing you were just complaining about! Yes hypothetical reader, but hear me out.
I love all books. Fiction, non-fiction, comics and cookbooks. I view them as investments as well as pieces to a growing collection. I buy cookbooks from chefs and restaurants I admire such as Ed Lee, Sean Brock and Marcus Samuelsson.
I've found that the recipes included in those books have been given a great deal of care and thought. More so than the average recipe from mamaskitchen.blogspot.org or whatever the hell ended up on page 1 of Google. Better cookbooks usually include the genesis of the recipes and the thought behind them, which is really valuable. You're likely to find sections that explain the chef's philosophy behind his or her cooking, too. Also, valuable.
So, when I'm seeking inspiration, I don't flip open a cookbook and make whatever I land on. No, I look through several to see if I find common themes. I look for interesting combinations that speak to me, and I think about what else I can do with them. Then I go to the supermarket and see what's possible given what's available.
It's also fun to revisit older cookbooks and see how you've grown. One of the first serious cookbooks I ever purchased was Esquire's Eat Like a Man. I got it because I had used a chili recipe that Bryan Voltaggio did for the magazine to great success. Despite the eye-roll-worthy name, it's a great cookbook and designed beautifully.
When I first got it, I found that I was only willing to cook a few of the recipes. Many of them, despite being rated an “easy” difficulty level, seemed daunting and sometimes a little strange. I picked it up for the first time in a long while and found that there were more interesting dishes than I remembered.
I also realized that, now, I could cook most of them without any trouble. My girlfriend even got some amusement over the fact that I had no idea who Tom Colicchio was when I originally got it but was excited some four years later to see he had written the foreward. It was a great illustration of how far I've come.
If you're stuck in a culinary rut, ditch Google, pick up a book and try grocery shopping without a detailed plan. You might surprise yourself.
Now if you'll excuse me, I need to ponder a goat cheese and caramelized onion ravioli dish I've been working on for a while. Some day it might even make it to the Recipes section!