My kitchen cupboards are full of reliable old faithfuls and one-night stands hoping for a second date. This is the time of year I become quite ruthless, tipping out drawers and emptying cupboards, turfing anything that no longer interests me into the bin. 'I'm sorry, I thought you understood it was just for fun,' I find myself muttering to a bottle of pumpkin-seed oil. 'No, really, you were great,' is the only response I can think of to a bag of once-used chestnut flour.
I am not just talking expired sell-by dates, but those packets, bags and tins that have sat there for weeks, months, haunting me. Foods that intrigued in the shop yet failed to amuse at home; ingredients sent to me by public relations companies that should have known better; those I liked on first meeting but which failed to find a permanent place in my kitchen. What is it about keeping only that which is useful or beautiful?
There is something deeply cathartic about this act of spring cleaning. I find it purifying. There is no place for nostalgia or pennypinching here and, in my experience, cleaning - unlike cooking - is best done in a temper. (I did this year's chuck-out in something approaching a small tantrum and it was the most Draconian and satisfying yet.) All that remains are those ingredients which are old friends rather than acquaintances, the unshakable soul of my kitchen, the foods I use week in, week out and the brands I have learned to trust.
What is left now is not necessarily what may have been left last time I had this annual blood-letting. Staple ingredients change as your cooking develops (unless you are the sort of person whose cooking stands still). There is now miso, couscous and dashi sitting alongside the arborio and basmati rice, the buckwheat noodles and the egg pasta. Two years ago they were still occasional visitors to my kitchen. Now they are as much a part of it as pasta, salt, garlic and lemons.
Other ingredients that seemed immovable have been used less this year - I haven't used much in the way of tinned tomatoes, for instance, or spaghetti or cornflour. Ten years ago, I would have included arrowroot, suet and gelatine, but they are rare visitors to this kitchen now. To do this annual spring clean is to take stock of what your cooking is really about.
I have done no real food shopping for a week or two now; just to Chinatown for fresh supplies of mustard greens and the odd trip to the fishmonger and butcher. The string of onions, heads of garlic and ever-present lump of Parmesan have been life-savers. Those few dried seasonings I ever use - oregano and vegetable stock powder - have been worth their weight in gold. More than once this week I have eaten pasta with nothing more than olive oil and grated cheese. But the number one most useful ingredients have been the onions and garlic that hang by the cooker. Twice those onions have been the star of a meal - once even when the kitchen was full of hungry friends after a good time.
Rather than lose those onions in the depths of a casserole, or blow them all at once in a soup, I baked them whole, first in butter - basted every 20 minutes, they came out an hour later as great shining orbs - and then, later in the week, in more complex ways with stuffings and a sauce. Not bad for a cook with empty cupboards.
Grilled gammon steaks with baked onions
This is a lovely dish, homely, old fashioned and what I call 'great-grandmotherly'. I sometimes find white sauces a bit heavy, so I have lightened this one by using half stock to milk. In practice,this means adding just 1tsp of Marigold vegetable stock powder dissolved in 250ml water, but you could use real stock if you have some.
The sauce is worth seasoning generously, with salt, pepper, grainy mustard, bay leaves and a (mild) grating of nutmeg. I leave the bay leaves in even when the sauce is finished and over the onions. It adds much in the way of subtle flavour.
Should you not fancy the grilled gammon, I still urge you to make the onions. They are good even on their own, perhaps with a mound of buttery mashed potato or golden swede with lots of butter and pepper. Serves 2, with second helpings of onions.
6 medium-sized onions
a thick slice of butter (about 30g if you are weighing)
1 heaped tbsp of flour (30g)
250ml light, hot stock (see above)
250ml warm milk
bay leaves, nutmeg, grain mustard
a small handful of parsley leaves
2 x 150-175g gammon steaks
a little oil
Bring a deep pan of water to the boil; set the oven to 180°C/gas mark 4. Peel the onions and bring them to the boil in the water, then turn down the heat and let them simmer until they are tender enough to take the point of a kitchen knife. This will only be a matter of 20-25 minutes or so. Drain them and discard the water. (Don't try using it in the sauce - the flavour can be too strong.)
Put the pan back on the stove, melt the butter in it and stir in the flour, keeping the heat low to moderate. Let the flour and butter cook for a couple of minutes, stirring often so it doesn't burn, turn up the heat, then pour in the stock and milk and whisk together for a minute until there are no lumps.
Season the sauce with salt and black pepper, three bay leaves, a gentle grating of nutmeg and 2 tsp mustard. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of these seasonings; they add depth and savour to the sauce and make the whole dish 'work'. Let the sauce simmer gently for a good 10 minutes or more, stirring regularly so that it does not catch on the bottom.
Cut the onions in half from stem to tip - take care, they are slippy - and place them flat-side down in a shallow baking dish. I use an oval enamelled gratin dish. Chop the parsley, but not too finely, and stir it into the sauce, then scoop the lot over the onions. Their caps will probably be poking out - no matter - and bake for 40-45 minutes till the sauce is bubbling.
Turn off the heat, but leave the onions in while you cook the gammon. If your grill is, like mine, in the oven, then move the onions to the bottom and put the grill pan two-thirds of the way up, so that it blocks the onions from the grill (if you prefer, you can cook the gammon on a hob-top grill).
Oil the steaks lightly and season them with pepper, a very little salt and a light sprinkling of oregano. Now grill them till golden on both sides (3 or 4 minutes on each side). Serve the grilled gammon with the baked onions and their sauce.
Baked onions with porcini and cream
These are the onions to have alongside a few slices of rare roast beef. The marriage of flavours is superb. If they are to be truly tender and silky soft, then it is crucial to take them as far as you dare in the pre-cooking stage, before you scoop out the centre and stuff them. They need to be boiled for a good half-hour depending, of course, on their size and any layers that are not supple and easy to squash between your finger and thumb should be discarded.
There is no reason why these onions with their mushroomy, creamy filling couldn't be served as a main dish. You would need two each, I think, and maybe some noodles - wide ones such as pappardelle - on the side, tossed in a little melted butter and black pepper. Enough for 4 as a side dish.
15g dried porcini
4 medium to large onions
a thick slice of butter
2 small cloves of garlic, peeled
5 sprigs of thyme (you can use dried thyme at a push)
200ml double cream
40g grated Parmesan
Put the porcini in a small bowl and cover with warm water. Peel the onions then boil them in deep, salted water for 25-30 minutes until they are tender and the layers will come apart when pulled. They mustn't be hard in the middle. Drain them, slice the top off each onion to give a flat edge then put them in a small baking dish, one in which they will fit snugly. Using a teaspoon, scoop out most of the inside of each onion without splitting the sides and base.
Chop half of the scooped-out insides of the onion (you can discard the other half, you won't need it) and warm them with the butter and crushed garlic in a small, shallow pan. Drain and chop the porcini, pull the thyme leaves off their twigs and chop them finely, then add both porcini and leaves to the onions and continue cooking, stirring from time to time.
As the onions soften and colour and the mixture starts to smell interesting, pour in the cream, season with salt and black pepper and remove from the heat.
Stir in most of the grated cheese then spoon the stuffing into the hollows of the onions. Add the remaining cheese on top and bake at 200°C/gas mark 6 for 20 minutes, till bubbling.