How good is your flavor imagination?
A few days ago, I threw together a few leftovers to make dinner... Grilled salmon, roasted cauliflower and some pasta. I just flaked the salmon, mixed it all in the pasta, and warmed it all up with a little butter. The salmon had been marinated in a sweet soy, so I didn't add any other flavors.
DH liked it very much, and said he would have never thought to make that dish with the stuff in the fridge. He said he can't imagine how things are going to taste together, just by knowing what they taste like individually.
Years ago, I had to instruct him to always use a recipe. He made a few disastrous dishes when we first met, using too much sage in one, I remember. He thought if a little sage was good, lots more would be lots better.
Anyway, I'd never really thought about having the taste of the ingredients in your head - I guess that's why some people are natural cooks, and others just aren't.
Can you imagine how your dinner will taste before you make it? When you taste it, is the flavor what you expected?
Agreed, if "food education" includes exposure to new things. When I encountered kimchi, sambal olek, and the concept of ma-la, my cooking choices were multiplied -> even when I Did Not add those particular flavours.
However, I've "always" been able to open the cabinet or the fridge and list off 20 things that could be made from 5 ingredients.
I agree that experience helps, as well as knowing the strength and weaknesses of ingredients when mixed together (i.e., too much sage or tarragon overwhelming any other flavor in the dish).
I did this last night for dinner, using up 4 large cherry tomatoes, some dried pappardelle, a small bag of frozen chopped kale, 1/2 cup chopped roasted red peppers, 1/4 cup reconstituted dried porcini mushrooms, and 1 Tbsp of tomato paste (as well as wine and heavy cream for a "sauce"). It was an "open the freezer and use what works together" type of dinner - and it came out very nicely.
I hadn't thought about this point - I was in charge of feeding the family for 40+ years. DH hasn't really ever had to think about dinner, his past spouses took care of meals, and he just ate what anyone put in front of him.
Now that he's retired and I'm not, he has to think about food a little more.
Yes, the same for us -- my husband did not do much cooking earlier in our marriage, and when he did, his most notorious! dish became known as "oregano soup." Now that he is retired, though, and I am not, he has been cooking for us for years, and has developed a food imagination.
I think the internet plays a role, here, too -- you can get a much better idea of how much is enough and what flavors seem to show up together than when (as we were back then) limited to a few cookbooks. And making notes as you cook (which he does more than I) can help you remember what worked well the last time.
So, I do think that this is a skill that can be acquired, but that, like so many skills, those who are really good at it are born with more ability to build on. In this case, maybe their palate, or their memory or ...
I consider myself an idiot savant in that area. It's one of my prized skills, I can do a mental rundown of the inventory, think about various condiments on hand, and figure out how to put it all together in a tasty melange. I think I draw on memories of dishes I've eaten in restaurants to get me started. Or frankly, I love watching Chopped on TV and I think it makes me think more "out of the box" based on some of those creative combos.
It's always been pretty good and has just gotten better, even as my tasting ability diminishes. What I like most about it is having the ability to think up a new dish and rough out the recipe with pen and paper, sitting with a glass of wine at the dining table of an evening (it functions as my desk). Thirty or forty years ago I sketched up car designs; now I sketch food. Well, I'm a hell of a lot better cook than I am a mechanic!