Mix and match

Faced with a fridge full of leftovers? Just throw them all together

I have a glutton's attitude to cooking. I largely ignore the "too much of a good thing" rule; and I pay little heed to the "less is more" one, either, figuring that if I like ingredients, and if they go well together, I might as well throw them all in. Owning taste buds that demand strong stimulation, I overwhelm food with favourite sauces and condiments. A recipe might suggest the addition of one dried chilli to, say, a pasta sauce; I throw in four.

It is a trait many Britons share. Our ancestors were enthusiastic consumers of imported spices, which offered the bonus of disguising the lack of freshness of the other ingredients on their plates. English mustard is far more eye-watering than the French version. The "Indian" curries that we fell in love with, and that have mostly been adapted for our tastes by Bangladeshis from Sylhet, are full-on approximations of the subtly spiced food cooked in the Indian subcontinent.

The advantage of lacking fine discrimination is that it enables you to use up leftovers or odds and ends of ingredients. If you followed recipes closely, you would never be able to find a perfect match between the recommended ingredients and the ones you have available. Have you ever seen a recipe for a lentil soup containing mushrooms? I have not, but I don't see why they can't go together.

I had some fresh chicken stock, on the last day that I dared to keep it. The dozen button mushrooms in the opened punnet were threatening to discolour. There were a couple of spring onions in the cellar. A soup, with lentils to give it substance, seemed right.

I washed 250 grams of green, Puy lentils; this quantity was for a thick soup for four. I poured the stock over them, brought them to a simmer with an unpeeled clove of garlic, and covered the pan. In another pan, I cooked, in olive oil, the spring onions with the mushrooms and another clove of garlic, chopped. After about 25 minutes, the lentils had absorbed a good deal of the stock. So I called up another leftover: half a tin's-worth of tomatoes, sitting in a bowl in the fridge. I poured this over the lentils. When the lentils were soft, I fished out the garlic, squeezed it from its husk back into the pan, and added the lentils to the contents of the other pan. Then I whizzed everything with a hand blender, seasoned the soup, and warmed it through.

I might not have served this dish at a dinner party, but for a family lunch, on a grey and rainy day, it was perfect. And it left me with only the potatoes and a single courgette from that week's vegetable box to use up.

The soup lacked just one ingredient, in my view. I stirred a teaspoon of harissa, the fiery North African paste, into my portion, entirely overwhelming the flavours of the other ingredients.

Nicholas Clee's food blog is at http://nicholasclee.blogspot.com

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Chavez: from hero to tyrant