Either cook your own or try a super clean ROM and just add those applications you desire. Alex does good lite ROM work. I have also used Dutty's V2 (medium), which I like alot. Another good one is Q-mobile. All of these allow you to do a lot of customization because they pretty much stick with the basics (although each provides great customization).
As for cooking, I'd spend some serious time getting used to a number of different ROMs and truly figuring out what you like and don't like. It's not ridiculously hard, but it's not for a total newbie either - just not sure of your back ground. Check out Alex's kitchen and his wiki. Makes it as easy as it can be made.