I was reading in Ad Hoc at Home last weekend Thomas Keller's tips for the home cook. He pointed out that being a good cook at home really comes down to knowing how to do a handful of things well: braising, making a pie crust, roasting a chicken, cooking eggs, making a pan sauce, and a few other tasks. He pointed out that many home cooks try a recipe once and move on to the next. But he pointed out that when a person makes a recipe for a second time is when they start to really understand how to make the dish. He recommends starting with these fundamental tasks and branching out from there.
I can agree that making the same recipes many times is what allows the cook to actually excel at certain things. I can make some really good chocolate chip cookies. Why? Because Scott loves them and always says "You never make us cookies". So since he encourages me to make the same type of dessert over and over again, I have a good grasp on what makes the process successful. Ice cream, on the other hand, which is very heavy, where the recipe produces more than we would want to eat, where we'd only really want on hot weather days, I have yet to master. I bet if I had a fiancé who was obsessed with ice cream, that I would be really competent at many different flavors.
That being said it is important to be able to on a weeknight walk in the grocery store and know a handful of dishes you can choose from where you know their ingredients by heart. I have a Brazilian shrimp stew from this book that I could make in my sleep. It is just shrimp, lemon, garlic, can of tomatoes, can of coconut milk, onion, parsley, maybe a red pepper. It is really easy takes about 20 minutes and impresses everyone I've made it for. Problem is it bores me. There is no act of discovery. There is no scientific experiment feeling to the project. There is no philosophizing on how and why the flavors in the ingredients interact. There is no surprise when it turns out delicious. Of course it is delicious, we've had it a hundred times. So on this a day when I have no idea what to have for dinner, do I go with an old standby and increase my skills further at something I find boring to make? Or do I pick something totally random where I can be surprised when it turns out well and feel fascinated by the process? Sure, Thomas Keller might think that home cooks don't repeat their recipes enough, but at some point you just have to go a little crazy. (Still not sure what to make for dinner, maybe I'll just go with the shrimp.)