So a friend asked me - how do you cook such a wide variety of dishes all the time - an endless stream of new ideas and things to make. So I ended up answering him in a series of Facebook comments. I thought I'd repeat some of it here and expand on them, as there's some really useful hints for both varying your food and for organizing cooking. Some of may seem like common sense - unless you aren't used to cooking every day, or preparing things beyond something microwaved out of a frozen dinner.
In general I have about 15 go-to cookbooks, some of which are oriented towards quick preparation, others to more elaborate dishes. I make a list at the beginning of the week of what I'm going to make, hit the grocery store or market for fresh ingredients (picking up things that might be useful but maybe not planned that look fresh or interesting along the way) and then plan the week out. I'm not even going to publish which cookbooks here, because realistically the relationship between a cookbook and a cook is unique. One I like you may not. One you like may not be the right thing for me. But cookbooks are essential to getting off the ground. Once you have made a number of various chinese stirfries from a recipe, and you know what each taste like you can mess around with ingredients to get more spice, less spice, heavier garlic etc. Eventually you won't need the cookbook and will know about the right proportions for everything.
The cookbooks are of two varieties - ethnic cookbooks with ethnic foods, and cookbooks with a specific theme (bread, quick to make meals, desserts, etc.). I try to have at least one ethnic cookbook from each major type of cuisine (There are still some I don't have, but I have all the major ones). I try to vary meals between ethnicities because one thing too often makes for boredom. So in any one week I might do a thai dish, a steak, a roast chicken from france, and a Chinese stirfry. Next week I might do indian, Mediterranean and Italian. Generally 3-4 full home cooked meals each week, and the rest of the time leftovers (most meals are for 4 in most cookbooks, so if you make that it is good for 2 meals.)
Recipes are guidelines - you should try a new recipe pretty much the way it's written the first time (unless you're already familiar with all the tastes and how they go together). TASTE ALL THE TIME - as you're cooking check what you're making so that you know what it tastes like. Don't know if the pasta is done? Ignore the timer - take a piece out and blow on it and try it - too stiff, leave it in. Perfectly al dente, drain it. Overdone and mushy - drain it fast and maybe even run cold water on it to stop it cooking. Recipe doesn't call for salt and pepper but the dish is missing something at the end - add a bit of spice at a time till it's right. I have an entire cookbook that never asks you to add salt and pepper to taste - though many of the recipes need both.
Planning and scheduling
I look at the week in terms of what we're doing. Going to Robotics on Tuesday - great, we'll pull some leftover Bolognese out of the freezer, pop it in the microwave, boil up some noodles, and dinner's done. Have more time - cook something more elaborate. Have time one day but not the next? Cook something elaborate for 4 and eat the leftovers the next day.
On weekends I generally make large or crockpot dishes - especially if we're not having guests over - because I can typically freeze an entire meal from something like that. When the freezer gets full, we start eating meals out of it more frequently until there is space again.
I save dishes with lots of prep work or mise en place for when I have time to cook or we're going to do a late dinner.
I use groceryIQ for shopping - an app and website that lets me toss stuff on the list from home or my phone and either Val or I can toss it on. It organizes foods by category, and keeps frequently purchased items so you can just reshop them when you need them. It will reorganize your list by the aisle order in the grocery store so if you're shopping you're hopefully not criss crossing all over the store looking for stuff (a major advantage at say Pittsford Wegmans on a Sunday afternoon).
I eat packaged foods rarely, and usually as an ingredient with something else that is self prepared. I never buy things like frozen dinners.
Building your kitchen spice library
Over time I've developed an EXTREMELY extensive spice collection - and I have an entire shelf in the fridge dedicated to just sauces of various types (curries, plum sauce, oyster sauce, various types of soy, chili sauce, etc. etc.). Periodically I cull it and toss stuff that's either got too little to actually use or is past due. When I do I typically just toss it on the grocery list to replace, but don't open till I need it (since it doesn't need to go in the fridge till opened in most cases).
Don't be afraid of trying new things. Be adventurous. And for heaven's sake - shop local farmers markets, ethnic food markets and places like local butchers or fishmongers for your food. Talk to the proprietors and get to know them. You will be amazed at the variety of things that are out there that never make it to Aisle 12 at your local commercial grocery store. Never cooked Turkish food? No problem - buy a cookbook. Don't know what an ingredient is - take the book to an ethnic market and ask them to help you find it (or a suitable substitute). You might find yourself trading recipes with the proprietor. Have something awesome at a restaurant - ask if they'll share the recipe. You'd be surprised how many will. Get to know other foodies and chefs and trade tips and cookbooks and recipes.
Mise En Place
A secret of every person whose ever worked in a commercial restaurant is that they quickly learn the importance of preparation ahead of time. Read the entire recipe before you start. Are there things in there that say stuff like 1/4 cup finely diced celery. If you wait to dice that celery until you need it you are almost certainly going to throw off the cooking time for something else in the recipe as it waits for you. Mise is about doing all that prep work ahead of time. I have a bunch of small dishes and bowls that I will pre-measure spices into, or chop up some fresh herb and have it all measured out. When it comes time to add it to the recipe you just dump it in and move on. No waiting. Unless the recipe specifically says something like "while the soup is simmering cut and clean the vegetables" do the prep work before you turn on the stove. Know you're going to need boiling water for noodles later? Toss the pot on the stove and get the water hot while you're chopping vegetables. Think ahead.
One Super Secret OneNote
My super-secret method for organizing menus and dishes I like involves the Microsoft product OneNote. This product is a shared notebook that is PERFECT for compiling and sharing your own cookbook of recipes. You can copy and paste a recipe from virtually any website, complete with pictures and formatting. Or you can take a photo of a recipe in a cookbook, or at a friends house or whatever and toss it into OneNote which will OCR the photo and make all the text searchable. You can share it using Microsoft Skydrive (mine is shared with my family so I can easily capture my mom's, my sister's and everyone's recipes. When one of us gets a recipe we like we drop it into the notebook. Now you can't publicly publish that unless all your recipes are original - but to keep it organized yourself it's invaluable. Don't like a recipe - delete the page. Needs more salt - make the change right there in OneNote.
OneNote is FREE with Microsoft Office, and you can use a free skydrive account to share it with friends or relatives - just "move" the notebook there, and click File/Share/Get an editing sharing link. The person you are sharing with doesn't even need to have OneNote as there's a web app that works great too. You can even install OneNote on your mobile phone - it's a lot like Evernote.
Know your limitations
I don't do dairy. My wife doesn't eat Walnuts. Be sure that when you sit down to plan out that awesome meal you're going to make that it doesn't involve an allergen for you or your dinner guests. If it does, and the ingredient is optional - put it on the side. I make a mean lasagna - but my side has like 1/4 the cheese my wife's does and 2x the sauce. It works out, mine is still yummy and moist hers is cheesy and gooey.
Know what equipment you have on hand and what you can substitute. If a recipe recommends a pasta machine and you don't have one - can you borrow one to see if it's something you ever want to do again? Or can you do it by hand the first time?
Have fun. Make mistakes
Sometimes what you make tastes - bad. But that's ok, because even if you toss it and order pizza or something you LEARNED SOMETHING - you don't like the particular spices or ingredients. The recipe said cook it at 450 for 2 hours, but it was dry and tough - try it at a lower temp or a shorter time next time. And experiment. Made that Bolognese sauce before? Think about what might taste good with it that's not in the recipe. Use a spicy Italian sausage instead of mild. Try a fennel sausage from your local Italian deli. Add pork belly instead of bacon. Increase or decrease an ingredient. If you're tasting as you go along you can adjust as you go along. Remember that you can always add more of something but removing a taste is a lot harder. But open up to experimenting with ingredients and spices once you know the basics of how something is put together. Worst comes to worst it's an excuse to go out to dinner. Be sure to note suggestions for improvement or variations you come up with when you taste something in your cookbook or OneNote - so that the next time you make it you know what to do. Cookbooks were not meant to stay pristine.