I'm gradually becoming more and more of a home chef but I can't seem to find the kind of cookbook I would like..
I like to cook creatively and I hardly ever follow recipes exactly. Usually I use a recipe to some extent but mostly as a general starting point and I add my own touches to the recipe. But I can almost never just sit there and suddenly think of a good idea for an interesting dish. I need some kind of a starting inspiration.
Are there any books you could recommend that could give some basic ideas for exciting dishes don't necessarily give exact recipes?
Think Like a Chef by Tom Colicchio. I just took this out from the library this weekend. He teaches the basics of certain techniques, and then shows you how to riff on a set of ingredients to create a variety of dishes. He really shows how having the right skills and understandings can allow you to be truly creative...and yes he has recipes but in most cases they are more like guides. Though I have to say if you delve into most good cookbooks they offer recipes that you can either follow step by step or use as "starting inspirations."
If you need inspiration without requiring exact recipes (for instance, if you're okay with being told that something should be "well spiced" without being given a precise list of spices and amounts), I recommend the writings of Elizabeth David or M.F.K. Fisher.
+1 for "How to Cook Without a Book" by Pam Anderson. The very basis of the book is how to go to the pantry and throw something together for dinner.
I have "Think Like a chef". It was ok. Sorry, I wasn't that excited about it.
If you already know how to cook, maybe you should just pull up a few recipes for something you are interested in. Get the general idea, and cook something similar.
I probably carry this to extremes but when I was going to make cabbage rolls, I pulled up several highly rated recipes, kept the ones I was interested in. You know the ones that were going in the general direction I wanted to go. I then put them in a spreadsheet and did... oh, I like that. I think I will steal it. But I think I like what this recipe did better for that. Oh that one reminds me of Grandma's.
I came up with my own recipe. I never did cook any of the ones I had put in the spreadsheet. I cooked mine. They were great. I used tried and true techniques, ingredients and spices that were prepared in a way that maximized the potential of my family liking it.
It seems to me that I learn faster that way. I come up with something I can recreate easily and I always have ideas on what I could do differently next time.
I know that others don't do it that way and I can certainly respect wanting to cook a recipe exactly like it says in a cookbook and then venture out from there but i often don't do it.
It really depends on what you mean by "inspiration". The recommendations above are all good cookbooks and are helpful but I don't go to them for "inspiration". For me the cookbooks with great sounding food presented with great photos are the most inspirational (I go to the other cookbooks when I'm really looking for something to go along a theme or spending time to get re-inspired about food in general).
So one of my go to cookbooks for quick inspiration is Boulevard the cookbook. It has great pictures, the recipes have lots of components so often I will just use a sauce or a plating technique or just do 2 of the components from a 5 component recipe.
In July 2010 when Italian Easy and Italian Two Easy (by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers of River Cafe in London) were Cookbooks of the Month many of the participants were slightly stymied at first given the recipes lack of specific amounts of ingredients or precise description of ingredients. As time went on, though, we took that lack as inspiration to create dishes which while following the written directions became more our own invention as we improvised the quantities and set about making the meals that suited us. Additionally, some of us became more comfortable with that type of inspiration.
Here's a link to the master thread for that month: