I KNOW A woman who, faced with the disappointing performance of a roux-based recipe from "Julia Child and Company," called Cambridge directory information for Child's number and demanded an explanation.
"I stirred the roux until it turned walnut . . . " she was explaining, when Child interrupted: "Walnut? It should have been mahogany."
The moral of this story is not that you should take a handyman course in woodstains. What we're getting at here is that you should take your experts whereever you find them -- but not take them too seriously. You, too, can be an expert, simply by learning to experiment and make do. Learn to cook by your nose. No recipe should be left unscathed by your passing.
I have another friend who improvised Grand Marnier into an oridnary milk and flour pancake mix (from Craig Claiborne from someone else) and produced a fantastic main course mealycake.
I myself am noted for believing that Nathaniel Benchley, even though he came from a family which knew good gin -- intimately -- shortchanged the family bluefish recipe when it came to the alcoholic measurements.
There is absolutely nothing sacred about any measurement, or any ingredient, for that matter. It's probably been years since Child measured anything.
If you just can't bring yourself to invent a dinner recipe absolutely from scratch, imagine a find of genealogical table from one proven palate pleaser to some original offering.
For example, if you have mastered the art of a fine and insouciant beef Stroganoff, turn left and replace the beef with boneless chicken breast. Left again, and you chop the (sauteed, probably) mushrooms and onions together into a thick spread and mix a little whipping cream and vermouth into the basic sour cream sauce.
Or, adapting in another direction, use fine veal and plain yogurt instead of the beef and sour cream (don't let the yogurt come to a boil). Add a heavy dose of mint and perhaps diced eggplant. Nobody will recognize this Middle Eastern delicacy as having begun as a Soviet specialty, and your reputation will be assured.
One good marinade deserves another. Once you have developed a marinade for shish kebab, try it on flank steaks for grilling or thin-sliced round steak for stir-frying. Teriyaki marinade can be applied to round steak strips with green pepper and scallions, shrimp and scallops, chicken whole or diced, and even calf's liver.
Avoid thinking of certain dishes as entire genres. The argument has raged for decades over what kind of meat (if any) to use in chili. A chili with chunks of chuck roast has a wholly different character from a glorified Sloppy Joe. More important, curries don't have to be chicken, or even lamb. Shrimp curry is a delight (first cousin to shrimp creole and gumbo), and curried lamb kidneys with chopped fresh tomatoes and onions is a revelation.
Use local specialties in inventing recipes. Trying a dish to a particular memory adds as much flavor as fresh ingredients. A red snapper and scallops in shrimp/cream sauce dish which I first made several years ago in Pawley's Island, S.C., (and ritually recreated every summer thereafter) was approximated in my absence last August by some of its admirers.
To one-up Andy Warhol: Everybody can be famous for 10 courses.
Another fringe benefit of developing your own recipes is that you will have to give up the idea of cooking by the book. No dish will ever be exactly the same twice -- no dish will ever have the same volume twice -- and coming to grips with that will help you ease out of the recipe racket.
The greatest lesson you will learn from playing with your food is that spices are the variety of life. Take a walk on the wild side. Once you learn to appreciate white pepper, everything else is duck soup.