It is four in the afternoon and I bump into a friend in the high street. We chat about nothing much and then he asks me what I am having for dinner. My reply, that 'I honestly haven't even thought about it', produces a look somewhere between abject sympathy and downright shock. 'Er, I think there's some cold chicken left,' I splutter. From the pained look on my friend's face, it is obvious that I should be agonising over my supper from the moment I open my eyes in the morning, thumbing through cookery books and skipping joyously round the market. The bare truth is that I often haven't a clue what I am going to eat for supper until I open the fridge door at six o'clock.
Today I am no more enlightened now that I have looked. I just sort of stand there, gazing into the cool, white space. It is not as if there is nothing there. It is just that nothing is particularly inspiring, no single ingredient beyond the remains of yesterday's roast chicken (albeit with the skin on one breast deliciously, tantalisingly intact, the plump oysters still thankfully in situ on its back, a rich jelly glistening around its wings) is begging me to use it, to turn it into something worthy of calling supper.
But hang on, there's a mango, maybe two, back there somewhere. An Indian Alphonso mango, as it happens, heavy with juice, though barely bigger than a duck egg. Then there's a bunch of mint, not actually at its best, but if I chop a few inches off the stalks and stand it in a glass of cold water it may yet perk up. In the cupboard under the stairs there's a packet of bulgur wheat approaching its not ungenerous sell-by date, which will make a softly refreshing salad with the mint and the mango, but would be even better with the inclusion of a bunch of watercress.
I saved the chicken fat from the roasting tin in a cup and it has almost solidified in the cool of the fridge. This I regard as treasure beyond measure. I could use it to roast the new potatoes that I bought on Saturday, with thyme from the pot on the windowsill. It will be a poor man's version of potatoes cooked in goose fat, which I regard as probably the finest of all accompaniments to cold roast meat, save a bowl of home-made aioli. Then again, I could scrape and boil the potatoes, drain and slice each one in half, and let them crisp up in a hot pan with a little olive oil or butter. Then I'd let them sit briefly in kitchen paper before I toss them in flakes of salt.
It is the cupboard staples - be they rice, quinoa, cracked wheat, spuds and dried or even tinned beans - that all too often save my life when I haven't given two seconds' thought to what we are going to eat. I could include pasta, but nothing on this earth will ever lead me to make a pasta salad. (Pasta salads are always disgusting.) I don't need much to make a thoroughly decent side dish. Parsley is always a bonus, as is a cucumber. And anything that crunches between the teeth, such as radishes or apples. A quick fix of mine is a cold noodle salad with ground peanuts, carrot shreds and chillies. Nothing you would actually have to go out and shop for, unless you wanted to juice it up a bit with cucumber and some sesame oil. Quite what I would have done without the leftovers of cold chicken is anybody's guess.
Mango and lemon tabbouleh
The best of both worlds here, being both mildly comforting and thoroughly refreshing at the same time. A useful, colourful summer salad that would be interesting as part of a mezze, too. You could also make it with quinoa instead of the bulgur - or cracked - wheat. Serves 4.
100g fine bulgur wheat
a large lemon
1 tbsp olive oil
a small bunch of mint (about 20g)
4 spring onions
a ripe mango
a bunch of watercress (about 80g)
Put the kettle on. Pour the wheat into a heatproof bowl and as soon as the kettle boils, pour a cupful of water over it. Leave for 20 minutes for the wheat to soften. Don't worry if it doesn't soak up all the water.
Finely grate the lemon into a mixing bowl. Squeeze the lemon and measure 3 tbsp of juice. Pour into the bowl and add the olive oil. Remove the leaves from the mint and chop fairly finely, then finely slice the spring onions. Stir them into the bowl. Peel the mango then remove the flesh from the stone in the thickest possible slices, preserving as much of the juice as you can (I tend to work over the mixing bowl). Cut the mango into small dice and add to the dressing.
Pull the leaves and tender stems from the watercress and chop roughly before adding to the salad. Wring out the bulgur with your fist, throwing the dry grains into the salad. Toss the ingredients gently and set aside for no more than an hour for the flavours to marry (the watercress will discolour if you prepare it too soon).
New potatoes with new season's garlic
Duck, goose or chicken fat is suitable here, though the crispest, tastiest results will come from a jar of goose fat. With the thyme and the meatily savoury fat, it is quite the most fragrant way to cook potatoes. The new garlic is around now, but if you only have last season's in the cupboard that is no reason to stop you making this sublime addition to cold roast chicken or beef; simply boil the peeled cloves in unsalted water for 15 minutes before roasting in order to reduce their pungency. Remove any green shoots that might be hiding in the centre. Be generous with the seasoning. Serves 2-3.
450g new potatoes
4 tbsp goose fat
6 large cloves of new season's garlic
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Scrub the potatoes and remove any flaky bits of skin. Put them into a dish with the fat. Peel the garlic, squash each clove slightly with the flat side of a knife blade, then tuck them under and around the potatoes. Roast for 30 minutes until the potatoes are sizzling and thoroughly tender.
Warm flageolet bean salad
In a perfect world I would make this with dried beans that I have soaked overnight. But rarely is life, or even supper, perfect and canned beans are not so bad if you dress them interestingly - in this case, with anchovies, lemon and herbs. They make a good side dish for a cold roast. Serves 4.
2 x 400g tins of flageolet beans
a head of new garlic, cut in half horizontally
a large lemon, cut in half
2 or 3 bay leaves
For the dressing:
3 anchovy fillets
2 plump cloves of garlic
5 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 tbsp lemon juice
a handful of basil leaves
about 20 flat parsley leaves
Rinse the beans in cold running water, taking care not to smash them. Put them in a saucepan with the head of garlic, the lemon and the bay leaves and bring to the boil. Simmer gently for 10 minutes, then turn off the heat and leave the beans for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the dressing. In a bowl or mortar, mash the anchovies and garlic with a little ground pepper. Slowly pound in the oil, lemon juice, basil and parsley to give a thick, green sludge. Drain the beans and toss them in the dressing while they are still warm.