I am so lucky to have grown up in a family where my mother cooked dinner regularly, and we ALWAYS sat down as a family to eat (whether it was a new recipe, an old favorite, "must-go" night - AKA leftovers, or at a restaurant). Dinner time with my family is something that I'll never take for granted. People have asked where my love of cooking has come from, and I can say without a doubt its from growing up with parents who appreciated food, pushed us to help cook dinner, and encouraged us to try new foods. Because of my parents, I've been helping in the kitchen for as long as I remember.
I've been asked how I "make up" recipes, how I know what to add to make something taste better, how I know what will taste good together, etc. Experience over time and practice are the only keys. There is no magic list that tells you what to add, but knowing the basics of flavors that go well together and seeing what other people combine in recipes helps you perpetually add to your mental cooking encyclopedia.
Sometimes I start from scratch when I'm making something up, but often I start with a recipe I know that I love.
For example, recently, I started out with my Chicken Marsala. (A recipe that I cook 3-4 times/year, which is a lot for any recipe for me.) Keep in mind that this recipe (like any recipe) is just a basis for me - if I don't have shallots, I'll sub onions. Sometimes I use prosciutto, if I don't have it I add some extra smoked paprika. Etc.
Mix about 1/2 cup of flour with the following spices (to taste): smoked paprika (~1 Tb), garlic powder (~1 tsp), black pepper (~1 Tb), cayenne pepper (pinch), dried oregano (~4 shakes), dried thyme (~2 shakes). Pound 1-1.5 lbs of chicken tenders to 1/4" (between sheets of plastic wrap). Heat enough EVOO to coat the bottom of a large skillet over medium-high heat (on my electric stove, that's about 1 tick below medium - I hate electric stoves...). Dredge the chicken in flour mixture. Slip into pan and fry on each side until golden brown (~3 min/side). Do not crowd the chicken - cook in batches. Remove chicken to a platter in a single layer. Lower heat to medium heat (for me, approx halfway below low and medium on the dial). Add 3Tb unsalted butter, 1 diced medium shallot, and 2 oz of thinly sliced/ribbon-ed prosciutto and saute for 2 minutes. Add 3 cups of sliced crimini mushrooms and cook until the mushrooms are slightly brown on the edges and have given off their liquid. Add 1 cup of sweet Marsala, bring to a boil, and scrape brown bits off the bottom. Reduce the Marsala by half. Add 1 cup of chicken stock and cook 3 minutes. Lower to medium, return chicken to pan, and cook about 5 more minutes until chicken is cooked through and hot. Serve over pasta (bowtie is my favorite).
While grocery shopping, I saw a package of frozen portobello mushroom ravioli. Immediately I thought about making a Ravioli Marsala.
I followed my Chicken Marsala recipe almost to a T (with 4 servings of ravioli). Obviously, there was no chicken to dredge in flour, so I dusted my onions in about a Tb of flour and small amounts of the spices. I also had no prosciutto. The result? It was ok. Not terrible but not something I'd want to identically duplicate. There wasn't enough sauce, and the sauce that was there was very thin.
It wasn't great - but I wasn't giving up. This happens a lot - good idea but mediocre result. I generally don't stop trying though until I've tried a few more times.
Luckily, this was an "easy" one - the second try was YUMMY!
Mushroom Ravioli Marsala
Finely chop 2 medium red onions. In a bowl, toss with ~6 Tb of flour, 1 tsp of smoked paprika, 2 hefty shake of garlic powder, 1/2 tsp black pepper, 1-2 shakes of cayenne pepper, 1 pinch of ground cloves, 2 shakes of dried oregano, 2 shake of dried thyme. Heat enough EVOO to cover the bottom of a large skillet over 'high' heat (on my electric stove, that's medium). Add the onions. Cook for ~2 minutes. Add ~4 ounces of diced prosciutto. Add ~4 cups of sliced crimini mushrooms and 2 Tbs of butter. Reduce heat to med-hi and stir occasionally until mushrooms are golden brown around the edges. <Meanwhile, bring your ravioli water to a boil.> Add a can of beef broth (to the sauce, not the water). Simmer for 4 minutes. Add enough Marsala to make a generous amount of sauce (~1 cups). By now your water should be boiling. Add 4 servings of ravioli (32ish) to the water and cook according to package (mine take 3 minutes). Remove the ravioli to the pan of sauce. Ladel one spoon of sauce into the bottom of the bowl. Add ravioli. Top with more sauce. Enjoy!
I know that next time I make this, my recipe will vary slightly - but thats ok with me! At least I know I have a place to start from.