It's a school night and I am at home. Nothing will lure me out once it's TV Dinnertime. Nigella and Jamie will feed me fit to burst from their amazing kitchens. Actually, I wish one of them would. At some point I will have to heave myself off the couch and cook. The result will be less Domestic Goddess and more Mother Hubbard.
I'd best come clean: every day I feed an amiable mob of hungry Londoners who jostle for space in front of my open-plan kitchen, in a busy pub. They might spy me reaching for the freshest clumps of parsley, or sea bass so recently deceased that it still has rigor mortis. They may feel that they are peeking through an invisible window into their fantasy kitchen. Lots of stainless steel, an outsized oven and a menu that would look just as comfortable on La Rambla as on a London road. What they don't know is that it is my fantasy kitchen, too.
The Queen has two birthdays, and I have two kitchens. The one in my home is a million miles from Nigella's (which I suspect might actually be the last Shangri-la). It is tiny. Were I to hang a pot or ladle from the ceiling, I'd probably take my eye out. This kind of working space does not allow for the kind of frenetic activity Jamie indulges in. Thanks to him, a lot of people think that all chefs now jump out of bed on their mornings off and make brunch for a dozen beautiful people by ripping up peaches and juggling them with half a pig's weight in prosciutto. I'd just end up with a sticky ceiling.
I also hate shopping. After cooking all day, I'm mildly terrified by the idea of my oversubscribed local supermarket in the evening. And I wish I could get up with the lark, whizz over to Ladbroke Grove on my scooter and indulge in witty banter with market traders. Sadly, they wouldn't know me from Adam - I'm not famous and I live in Camberwell. Besides, the sky only needs to cloud over, and wild horses would have to drag me off the bus before I reach my flat. Home first. Avoid rain. Deal with empty fridge later.
Perhaps this laziness is one reason why I keep one part of my kitchen at home stacked full. Anyone who has looked into my cupboards knows that I have a small convenience store in there. It looks like I fell for the millennium-bug scare-story hook, line and sinker.
In our new food age, the tin can is not sexy. In culinary terms, cans have been consigned to the waste disposal in favour of a diet that pretends it is always springtime. And as a result, I believe we have lost the old art of keeping a larder.
There is a huge difference between food that has been lovingly preserved and that which has been doused or stuffed with whatever will make it seem fresher for longer. Thankfully, there are still plenty of places where preserving is still something close to an artisan craft.
In Spain, there are towns so famous for canning fish that people look out for those placenames on the tins and jars. Escala in Catalonia is where they pack anchovies in salt like no one else. If I want them filleted in olive oil, it's got to be the Basque coast. The famous piquilos peppers from Navarra look as spectacular as they taste. And while quinces only make a brief appearance between autumn and the new year, they are eaten with cheese all year round in the form of membrillo, an amazingly sticky preserve.
I am not saying that I live entirely out of my storecupboard. Neither do I turn to it only when I cannot face buying anything. But I enjoy stocking up my larder, and I love to use things from it to pep up something as basic as a potato salad or a simple pasta. And there are some occasions when only a tin or a jar will do the trick.
So Jamie and Nigella can do all the work - and the shopping. Just down the road, the rain is bouncing off the fattest purple aubergines and refreshing the huge bunches of coriander outside my local greengrocers. I was right about those clouds.
How to eat well from tins
You need tinned tuna - the best is the whiter Spanish stuff in olive oil. Next, tinned white beans - haricot or cannellini. Go for organic versions or the Italian ones that contain no sugar. Whatever you do, do not drain the stock away - it is one of the finest kept culinary secrets on the planet.
Finally, tinned peppers. Again, the best are Spanish. Look for navarra or piquilos peppers. If you cannot find these, fresh red pepper or even a couple of chillies will do. Cooking time is swift. Heat a large saucepan with plenty of salted water. While you wait for it to come to a rolling boil, roughly chop a medium-sized onion and a couple of cloves of garlic. Fry them gently in another pan with some olive oil for about three minutes. If using a fresh pepper, chop it the same way and add immediately. Or remove the piquilos peppers from the tin and chop roughly before adding to the contents of the pan. Now drain the oil from the tuna and add it to the onions and peppers. Add the beans without draining the stock. Simmer gently. You now have a pretty sloppy-looking stew on the go. Season with salt, pepper and olive oil if you have any knocking about.
Boil about 200-250g of a pasta shape such as penne, or conchigle. Once cooked and drained, return it to the big pan, and fold in the tuna, bean and pepper stew. Any fresh herb knocking about is a welcome addition. Parsley is my favourite, with another slug of olive oil. Serve in big bowls, with good bread for mopping up afterwards.
Abdul's jungle curry
Before I was old enough to know any better I spent some time roughing it in a Malaysian rainforest. Abdul was the guide, and he taught us how to spot edible fruits and how to purify horribly muddy creek water. But his pièce de résistance was our evening meal. It was the same every night: mounds of rice and a curry made entirely from tinned ingredients.
You need tinned mackerel in a chilli sauce for this curry. If you have access to a Chinese supermarket you can get hold of the Malay brand, called Giti. This does have the edge over others but most supermarkets have their version.
You need a tin of unsweetened coconut milk. The other ingredients can be either tinned or fresh. Abdul used a combination of bamboo shoots or beansprouts, not to mention a kind of tinned green that I have never found over here. Chinese greens are good but broccoli will do the trick otherwise.
Cooking time is devilishly quick. I am going to assume that you have sorted out a mound of sticky white rice for yourself.
Heat a wok on a medium flame. Chop an onion and a clove or two of garlic. Fry them until tender. Add the entire contents of the mackerel tin. Fry for about a minute, and gently break the fish up with the edge of the spoon. Add whatever vegetables you have chosen. Fry for another minute, and add the coconut milk. Bring to a boil and remove from the heat. To season, simply add soy sauce until you have the saltiness you require. If you have coriander knocking about, chop the leaves roughly and throw over the top.
Real chilli addicts can add more heat with dried chilli flakes. The end result should be a very simple Malay fish stew. Like Thai curries, the coconut milk forms a broth in which the other ingredients sort of bob about. If you want to reduce the gravy to a thick sauce simply simmer for longer. If you do that, add the beansprouts just before serving, instead of with the coconut milk, so that they are not soggy.
This is a wonderful larder salad, served in bars and cafes all over Barcelona. It is fresh, crunchy and quick. Catalan anchovies are preserved and packed on the Costa Brava and prized all over Spain. Look for Spanish anchovy fillets in olive oil and if you are lucky they might be from Escala. Salchichon is like peppery salami. Pop into your local deli and find one that you like.
300 g boiled new potatoes
2 hard boiled eggs
1 or 2 spring onions finely sliced
2 good tomatoes, quartered
A small bunch of radishes, left whole
250g olives (of your choice)
1 picked head of chicory or little gem lettuce
A handful of whole basil leaves
Half a dozen thin slices of chorizo or salami
A small tin of anchovy fillets, drained of excess oil
A jar of either white asparagus or preserved artichoke hearts... or both!
Salt, pepper, olive oil and sherry vinegar.
It's pretty clear what you are going to do here: toss together a potato salad with the ingredients listed above. You can omit or replace the ones that you do not like. This dish is very flexible. For instance, the salami could be crispy fried bacon, or the whole thing can be vegetarian. The asparagus and artichokes might be fresh, although those mildly pickled affairs have a charm of their own. All that remains to say is that I like to break up the new potatoes, rather than slicing them. Little crumbly bits of spud will just slightly emulsify any dressing. I do this while they are still a little warm, then dress them with vinaigrette made with the oil and sherry vinegar, some salt and pepper. Pretty much straight away add the onions and tomatoes, but stop there. The sting will go out of the onions and the whole thing will come together a little. When really cool, the base is ready for everything else. Serve with more oil, and good crusty bread.
Quick tomato sauce
Is there a cupboard in the land that does not include tinned tomatoes? Not only is this sauce (primarily for pasta but not restricted to that medium) my ultimate standby when nothing else is around, it is also delicious. It is very easy to make. I guarantee that once you have mastered it you will never buy the universally dreadful commercial types again.
Because the long variety of plum tomato is grown in Italy for the express purpose of cooking, I always buy Italian tinned plum tomatoes. Little more needs to be said except that it is worth avoiding a couple of traps for the unwary shopper. There is always a large price difference between tomatoes that have been left whole and the chopped variety. Since my tinned tomato recipes always include the step of squashing and straining them, I consider the chopped ones to be a waste of money. Also avoid the kind with basil leaves which will be bruised and entirely taste-free.
2 medium (ie 450 g) tins plum tomatoes
3 or 4 cloves garlic
A handful of sage or basil (optional)
Slice the cloves of garlic and start to heat them gently in about four tablespoons of the olive oil. My favourite herb for this sauce is sage, about eight leaves of which should be added at the beginning of this sauce's cooking time. Throw it into the oil with the garlic. In the summer, basil is the obvious replacement - added uncooked as you serve up. Place a colander in your kitchen sink and empty two tins of tomatoes into it. Now squish them around (go on, use your hands!) until all the excess juice has gone. A lot of seeds will go with it. You now have squashed tomatoes. Heat them with the oil and garlic. Add a tablespoon of caster sugar and a splash of balsamic vinegar. Let the sauce reduce for about half an hour on a fairly gentle flame (it is too easy to burn tomato sauce). It is ready when you can run a wooden spoon gently along the base of the pan and it parts the sauce easily. What you ideally want to see in its wake is the oil that you started to cook with, by now very much infused with flavours from the garlic and tomato. Season with salt and pepper at the end of cooking time. You want a sweet and sour taste, not too tart.
Italians do not swamp their noodles in sauce as we tend to and it is best to simply add the still warm sauce to cooked pasta, a little at a time, in a large mixing bowl. Lubricate the pasta with butter or olive oil first.
Finally, season it with a Parmesan cheese. This sauce also works well with a jacket potato or spread on bruschetta. It is a great foil for grilled white fish such as hake or cod. It freezes well should you wish to make a larger batch, and will keep for up to a week in the fridge.