There it was, in black and white, as clear as the precious white beans themselves: 'Use by August 2005'. I keep an orderly kitchen cupboard, most of its contents being packed into tightly stoppered jars made to stand in serried rows, with spills and dribbles wiped up quicker than you can say anal retentive. And yet there is always the odd opened packet of flour that magically pushes its way to the back of the cupboard; a crinkly cellophane bag of lentils that splits and spills its contents into the furthest corner; a bottle of sesame oil or tin of black treacle that manages to leave its sticky calling card on my smart white shelves.
This week I went through every screwtop jar, each tightly packed Kilner, every glass tube of vanilla pods, checking for anything that might be overdue for a trip to the bin or the compost. Somewhat smugly, I knew there wouldn't be much to shock or horrify. So why, then, am I looking at a bag of dried white beans more than two years past their sell-by date? Those beans would have made a soul-satisfying winter soup, a gorgeous swamp of onions and tomato, maybe layered with slices of toasted bread spread thickly with basil pesto or black olive tapenade. They could have been a lovingly stirred curry, rich with cardamom, cumin and garam masala, freshened at the last moment with handfuls of coriander and creamed coconut. Instead they will end up as baking beans, shoved into an empty pastry shell in an attempt to stop it rising in the oven. Worse (whisper it), they could end up chucked into landfill.
And what of the bag of dried mushrooms that I failed, slovenly old tart that I am, to put in an airtight container? Mushrooms, which incidentally cost a small fortune, that would have gilded a risotto or ended their days being gently simmered in a soup of root vegetables and spices.
Could that packet of dried figs, the one I forgot to decant into a jar, have made a healthy dessert? Few ways to end a winter Sunday lunch are more luxurious than Turkish figs plumped up in a sweet wine scented with the seeds of Madagascan vanilla pods, or perhaps orange peel and honey. Yet now I am a victim of larder guilt.
I am often asked which is the best way to store pantry goodies such as flour, sugar and dried beans. There are many storage jars on the market, and sod's law says that the ugliest are the most efficient. But I reckon it is almost impossible to beat the good old-fashioned clip-top Kilner-style storage jar - the portly glass jars with the replaceable rubber ring and tight pull-down clip. They keep the air out better than any others, are strong enough to go through the dishwasher, and can even be occasionally dropped without coming to grief. (I have even found a company that will restore your old Kilner jars to their original rust-free condition. An email will get you their details.)
This has been the week I tidied my shelves, emptied my cupboards and brought out my dead. It was also the week I made toe-tinglingly fine soup with elderly dried mushrooms and feasted off past-it figs and sweet wine. The beans, bless them, finally found a new life on the compost heap.
Toasted parsnip soup with porcini and walnut toast
Dried porcini are expensive, but even a small handful added to a soup will bring a wave of smoky, almost beefy notes. A general instruction with parsnip soup is to prevent the vegetables from colouring, presumably to keep the soup pale. In this version I suggest the opposite. You want the parsnips to cook to a gentle gold before you add the stock - that way the soup will have a deeper flavour and a colour reminiscent of heather honey. You can add some cream if the mood takes you. Serves 6.
a handful of dried porcini
2 medium onions
3 tbsp olive oil
a large knob of butter
600g parsnips (2 large ones)
1.2 litres stock (Marigold or similar is ideal)
a stick of celery
a plump clove of garlic
Soak the porcini in about 300ml of warm water for 30 minutes. Peel the onions and chop them roughly, then soften in a heavy-based pan with the oil and butter, stirring regularly. Peel the parsnips and cut into large chunks. Add them to the pan then let them colour lightly on all sides. The parsnips need to be evenly but gently toasted - a pale gold rather than brown. This will take 7-10 minutes with the occasional bit of stirring.
Next, pour in the stock, the chopped celery and the clove of garlic, peeled and squashed. Add the porcini and its soaking water, a light seasoning of salt and black pepper, and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down so that the soup simmers merrily for about 40 minutes.
This is one of those soups best eaten smoothly pureed, so push it all through the blender till smooth. Check the seasoning - it may need more salt and pepper. Serve with the toast below if you wish.
To make the toast:
a handful of dried porcini
the leaves from a small bunch of parsley
a small clove of garlic
a handful of chopped walnuts
6 small pieces of interesting bread, toasted
Soak the porcini for half an hour in warm water. Squeeze dry then chop together with the parsley and garlic. Stir in the walnuts. Warm the butter in a small pan, add the mixture, and stir till warm and fragrant. Spoon on to the little pieces of toast and float on your soup.
Baked figs with Muscat
Plumped full of wine, figs make a dessert that seems far more indulgent than it actually is. I used a sweet orange Muscat this time, but a small bottle of any reasonably priced sweet Muscat is just fine. Serves 4.
450g whole dried figs
a half bottle of sweet Muscat
a heaped tbsp thick honey
Set the oven to 180C/gas mark 4. Tip the figs into a casserole for which you have a lid. Pour over the wine and an equal quantity of water. Remove three wide strips of peel from the orange with a vegetable peeler then tuck it in with the figs, then stir in the honey.
Cover with a lid and bake for 1 hour, by which time the figs will have plumped up into fat, wine-loaded bundles. Eat warm or lightly chilled.