Find creativity in cooking
As a child, I loved fiddling with things, deconstructing toys and objects and trying to get them back together afterward. Duct tape and scissors were my very good friends, and I liked to use my mother's sewing machine to assemble miniature purses and hair scrunchies with fabric from her big treasure chest of scraps. I wouldn't go so far as to call myself crafty, as nothing earth-shattering ever emerged from my hands, but I loved how these activities sucked me in, making me lose all sense of time until suddenly I looked up, night had fallen and it was time for dinner.
As I grew older I gradually stopped doing these things, most for lack of time (and perhaps toys to disassemble), but it is clearly this side of my personality that led me to cooking. At a point in my life when my day job made me feel frustrated, expressing little and creating nothing of real worth, I found myself yearning for the kitchen as a place where I could do my own thing, play with colours, smells, and flavours, see the magic at work, and feed my friends.
And I have found that cooking creativity is a skill that can be cultivated: As you gain experience, your instincts take the driver's seat, and you don't really need to follow recipes too closely anymore.
Keep a food journal
Whether in a notebook, on your computer, or as a food log, it is helpful to keep a cooking journal: write down the name of the dish, what recipe you used and your modifications, which occasion and whom you made it for (the self-respecting host would rather die than accidentally serve a dish twice to the same guest, you see). Add your comments, however short or detailed you want to make them.
Jot down the interesting dishes that you taste at restaurants, the projects you want to take on, the unusual food pairings you hear about and more generally, the random thoughts that pop into your mind. (Inspirations can strike at any time, in any place. Some of my best ideas came to me on the métro, at the opera, or during lengthy work meetings, so I make sure I take my pen and notebook wherever I go.)
You can refer to your notes when you're looking for inspiration, or when you want to elaborate on a dish you've cooked before. This will help you build on your experience, keep track of your progress, and watch the evolution of your culinary personality.
Organize your cookbooks and clippings
If you are like most enthusiast cooks, your shelves are probably laden with an ever-expanding collection of cookbooks, recipes copied from websites and others clipped from magazines. How do you organize all this and capitalize on this wealth of ideas? In my world, the cookbooks get spiked with sticky flags that mark the appealing dishes, the online recipes are kept in a file on my computer and the clippings are sorted in a cardboard folder. But organization is a personal thing, and you should devise a system that works for you. Whichever you choose, the idea remains the same: To map out the scenery of your collection and make it easy for you to find your way around.
While it's tempting to hoard a huge amount of recipes, it's best to keep or tag only the ones that really inspire you, the ones you think you'll get around to trying someday -- no, really. And, of course, it's not much use to file recipes away if they never see the light of day. But if you go through your cookbooks and folder on a regular basis -- when you're planning a dinner party or have to take a dish somewhere -- their content will live someplace fresh in your mind, ready to be called upon when you see something unusual at the market: "Sea spinach? Aha! I have a recipe for this!"
Cooking from the pantry
As a little exercise to flex you creative muscles, try this: Open the fridge, look through your pantry and improvise a dish -- or better yet, an entire meal -- using only what you have on hand. No shopping allowed. You can refer to existing recipes (that's when you'll be glad you've kept your cookbooks and clippings organized), but you will likely have to adapt them, and this is where it gets interesting.
This approach, focusing on available ingredients rather than a finished product, is the best way to let loose, unleash your own ideas and make the most of your food supplies. If you've never really cooked like this before, it may seem a little daunting, like riding a bike without training wheels. You may fall and scratch your knee every once in a while, but you will always learn something from it and most of the time you will be surprised and oh-so-proud, to see how well you do on your own. (Don't forget to write down the recipe then.)
Excerpted from Chocolate and Zucchini: Daily Adventures in a Parisian Kitchen by Clotilde Dusoulier. Copyright 2007 by Clotilde Dusoulier. Excerpted with permission from Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced except with permission in writing from the publisher.