My mother was not a cook. She knew where to go for catering, mastered cooking in the microwave, and was the queen of semi assembled food to which you added an egg or ground beef. My memory of my father cooking was of him counting out each piece of spaghetti. When I went to Russia for the first time it was a revelation. Home cooked soups and stews like schi and solianka tasted amazing. Bulochki , a Russian bun, tasted nothing like store bought buns. Coming home I vowed to learn to cook real food. And I did. Now I can cook almost any Russian, French, or American dish with ease and I am confident it will taste amazing.
If you have the time and opportunity the easiest way to learn to cook is to take a cooking course designed for serious amateurs like those at the International Culinary Center (ICC) in New York City. I took their cooking course years ago which taught me how to confidently prepare vegetables, soups, fish, eggs, and meats. It was wonderful learning knife skills and basic cooking technique. Also, since each student was given his own ingredients and kitchen, it was four hours of hands on learning each session. But, not everyone has the time or chance to do that—I certainly would not be able to do that now.
Not having 40 plus hours to devote to a cooking course these are my recommendations:
1. Choose one cuisine to cook until you understand it. Jumping from Korean to Tex-Mex to Indian will not give you the understanding of flavors, techniques, and dishes which will free you to cook without recipes and with improvisation. In addition, practically speaking, it is hard to keep the essentials you need on hand and fresh when jumping from one cuisine to the next.
2. Cook the same dishes over and over so you can master and build upon them.
3. Keep it simple. Start with the most pared down recipes. They are easier and often more satisfying.
4. Choose a good general cookbook. My recommendations are below, but choose a cookbook that inspires you. To learn the most from a cookbook commit to it and work your way through the recipes. Make notes on the recipes as you cook them so you can improve and remember what you thought of your technique and the finished dish.
My top cookbooks are:
How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman
Please to the Table (Russian) by Anya von Bremzen
Fish & Shellfish by James Peterson
Staff Meals by David Waltuck
The Pie and Pastry Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum
Remember the great thing about cooking is you will be hungry again.