I was talking yesterday with a friend who doesn't cook much, but he wants to start. I wanted to offer an encouraging word about how "cooking isn't that hard", but then I remembered how much that phrase kinda irritates me. You hear master chefs saying "oh yeah, making a souffle isn't that hard, you just do these four steps with these five ingredients." What they're really saying is, "now that I know what I know, and have practiced all the techniques involved, it isn't hard for me."
It's like someone telling you chess is easy. "It's easy to win if your opponent makes this move. Just castle queenside, play the giocco piano, and counter his King's Gambit with the Nimzo-Indian defense."
Cooking well is hard! The good news: you don't have to cook well.
It's not a contest. You're not on Iron Chef. You don't have to match a recipe. You just have to make something that's good enough to eat. And really, most things are pretty good.
Here's how to cook, and I'll call this Dan's Three-Step Plan to Cooking Well Enough.
1. Ingredients. Go to a farmers' market. (or the produce section of a grocery store, if you're not near a farmers' market or it's out of season.) Buy some stuff. Some stuff that you understand, some stuff that you don't. If it's fruit, bread, cheese, yogurt, or something else immediately edible, eat it. If it's a vegetable, and it's kind of soft or small (for example, peppers, greens, onions, zucchini, tomatoes, peas), cut it up and saute it. (that means put some oil or butter in a pan, turn it on like medium or medium high, add the food, and take it out when it looks hot and a little softer than it was.) If it's a vegetable that's kind of hard, try boiling it for a few minutes, until it's soft. Tasting things while they're cooking is key. When in doubt, ask the farmer how to cook it, or look it up on the internet.
Freely use butter, salt, pepper, and sugar. (whatever you're cooking is still healthier than packaged junk.) You're learning what these foods are, how they taste, and how to deal with them. Be adventurous! Enjoy the essence of each food; try to figure out how you'd describe how kohlrabi or beets taste. Try to understand the difference between cooking kale and spinach. And feel free to throw something out if it's really rubbish. You're learning! Each day you cook, you are a better cook than you were the previous day.
2. Friends. Invite them over. Cook with them. Especially if you have friends who know how to cook: they'll love to teach you stuff. (but if they're fancy-pants types, make sure you keep things simple; there's no point in learning their 25-step lasagna recipe, as you're never going to make that again yourself.) You'll probably come up with something pretty good. And worst case, you end up with something that's kind of soggy or whatever, and you throw it out and go out for dinner.
3. Nationalities. Once you understand some ingredients, and some basic techniques, and you want to learn how to impress guests, then (and only then) can you pick up some recipes. But rather than just picking cookbooks off the shelf (as most are terrible, and most that aren't terrible are encyclopedic), pick a country. Even a sub-country, like Northern Italian or something. I'm on a Thai kick right now, which I can tell you is really a pretty easy one. Indian isn't bad either, Japanese is tougher and less rewarding, Indonesian is harder to find ingredients for. But ultimately, it doesn't matter which you pick; pick something you like!
And then try recipes. Keep learning ingredients. Don't worry if something doesn't turn out. Worst case, you find you can't make anything in your book, and you can go to step one: saute some stuff. Try the recipes that you've had in restaurants. Keep repeating recipes until you know exactly how the pad thai noodles feel in the pan, or how to make the spring rolls stick together, or how much coconut milk you should add. These will eventually become second nature if you keep cooking.