The longevity of onions never ceases to amaze me, although I should know better. Having grown them in the past, when I used to have my allotment plot, the practise of digging up in autumn and laying them down singularly and flat, on top of wooden boxes or flattened cardboard, was a common sight. This would help to cure and protect the onions, as the outer skin hardened and dried, ready to be stored in meshed bags for winter. Making them impervious little blighters really. Wonderful things, onions. These hardened balls of energy, just waiting to be unleashed like that.
However, the surprise only occurs whenever I reach into the corner cupboard of doom, where all the ‘stuff’ gets shoved, to grab a carrier bag and suddenly see a red onion come flying out.
‘Where has that come from?’ I’ll think. And ‘how long has it been in there?’ Along with ‘Hmm, maybe I’ll use that tonight.’
I am of course making this admission in the vague hope that it will sound familiar. I am hoping that I am not the only one who gets haunted and taunted by forgotten vegetables, scattered in the dark recesses of their kitchen. I also hope that on discovering these poor lost souls, lots of you end up cooking them, rather than simply throwing away. Because they will still be good for eating.
If you are undecided on the matter, a great destination for old vegetables is the humble stew or hot pot. Braising in a casserole, along with a cheap cut of meat, some store cupboard ingredients and some time and some care, can result in a dish that is not only tasty and transformative but also less wasteful. And if you discover whole bags of missing treasure, such as slightly wrinkled peppers, lying forlornly at the back of the fridge, then batch cooking is the way forward. Fill that freezer for days when you really don’t feel like slaving away behind the stove. For days dedicated to getting through Gilmore Girls or Game of Thrones or whatever takes your fancy.
This stew, or hotpot as I have named it, uses all of the above: ie onions, peppers and frugal meat in the form of beef shin, which is excellent for this type of cooking. Hard worked muscles always taste best. The slight twists or quirks to this recipe are down to the spices used, which lend a Latin or Mexican sort of flavour and come in the shape of the paprika, cumin and ancho chilli. For the purposes of this particular dish, I suggest popping an ancho in whole. You can chop it up and let the seeds run riot if you like, to add an extra fiery element of heat. But I prefer to leave the pepper to steep in the stock and let some of the ancho’s fruity quality come through.
Either way, you will have to soak it in boiled water first. Three years in a cupboard is a long time for a desiccated chilli to wait. But don’t worry, it will still be up for the job.