Sooner or later, every dedicated cook learns that a recipe is simply a launching point for cooking, a guideline.
If you really want to learn to cook well you need to understand what gives a dish balance in taste, how the weather and the season affects the dishes you would want to make, which ingredients work well together and which don't.
My earliest memories of my mother are of her standing over a sauce, tasting it and adding either a little sugar, some lemon juice, or some salt, to "balance" it in her words; I had no idea what she meant, but everything she made tasted great.
My parents often mentioned that "such and such was in season" as a reason for us eating it, this too left no imprint on me as a child. It wasn't until I started to garden that I finally understood the importance of the seasons; zucchinis and tomatoes will taste better in the summer because that's when they grow.
Experienced home cooks, like my mother, learn over time that certain ingredients just taste good together, like strawberries and rhubarb, peas and mint, or chicken and tarragon.
I think it is this knowledge that can really set one free to be creative in the kitchen, to improvise, whether you are starting with a recipe or not. The more you understand which flavors work well together, which offer a natural balance, the more masterful your results will be.
It is this subject that authors Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg address in The Flavor Bible. Page and Dornenburg spent 8 years researching to prepare the contents of The Flavor Bible. They interviewed countless chefs for their suggestions of what foods, spices, herbs complement each other.
The Flavor Bible is designed for inspiration, for those days when you know you want to make something with a particular ingredient, and are looking for what would work well with it.
For example, arugula is something we have growing in spades this time of year. Looking it up in The Flavor Bible I find an interesting recommended "flavor affinity" that I have not considered - arugula with pears and prosciutto.
The book is set up like one giant index. Just look up an ingredient, and there will be a list of other ingredients that are well matched with it, as well as suggestions for groups of ingredients that work well together.
There is also plenty of white space for you to fill in your own ideas of complementary flavors that have worked well for you, but have not yet made it to the book.
The pages are peppered with quotes and suggestions from some of the best chefs in the world, describing their favorite food combinations.
If you are interested in improvising beyond a basic recipe, and want the best possible results, you will find this book a godsend. It's as if someone picked the brains of the best culinary talent just for you.
Reviews of The Flavor Bible by other food bloggers
Amy Sherman's review - from Cooking with Amy
Braised rabbit and a new way to look at food - review by Hank Shaw of Hunter Angler Gardener Cook
Review by Michael Natkin - of Herbivoracious
Shauna's recommendation - from Gluten-free Girl Recommends