Smells like old spice...

Do you have a cupboard full of ingredients that have languished unused for months (or even years)? You're not alone. Hester Lacey asks three keen cooks what lurks in their larders

Caper berries, tamarind pulp, candied angelica, galangal. Most of us have jars and bottles bought in a fit of culinary enthusiasm that we've used once (or not at all) and shoved to the back of the drawer. A new survey by McCain foods has found that only around half of the most exotic ingredients we buy make it to a second tasting; the rest remain uneaten, cluttering up the kitchen shelves and spice racks of the nation. And although we buy cook books and watch cookery programmes avidly, typically only seven new recipes make it to our dinner tables over the course of a year. If you have a store of dusty, sticky packets and tins well past their sell-by date, don't feel guilty; you're far from alone.

Caper berries, tamarind pulp, candied angelica, galangal. Most of us have jars and bottles bought in a fit of culinary enthusiasm that we've used once (or not at all) and shoved to the back of the drawer. A new survey by McCain foods has found that only around half of the most exotic ingredients we buy make it to a second tasting; the rest remain uneaten, cluttering up the kitchen shelves and spice racks of the nation. And although we buy cook books and watch cookery programmes avidly, typically only seven new recipes make it to our dinner tables over the course of a year. If you have a store of dusty, sticky packets and tins well past their sell-by date, don't feel guilty; you're far from alone.

Judy Beswick
The 47-year-old nurse and her husband, Nicholas, 48, an Army officer, live in Warminster. They have twin children, Laura and Philip, 16.

"We're an army family so we move every two or three years, and my kitchen cupboards are very neat to start off with; tomatoes and vegetables on one shelf, baking stuff on another. Once we've all been through it a few times, it's bedlam. There's always a tin of lychees that turn up when we move, or a box with jellies and sauce packs and things like seasoning for potato wedges that appear. Last time I found a pack of jelly that was five years old and threw that out; the other day I came across a can of Carnation milk that must be four years old.

I've got herbs and spices that I use all the time, like garlic salt, chicken seasoning, bay leaves, anchovy paste, and stock cubes. But I've also got things like oregano, bought for a recipe and never used again, and a pack of cloves that have been there since I got married 18 years ago.

My children like experimenting, and the other day my son brought in a recipe for chicken with pine nuts and lemongrass. So we bought all the ingredients, then when we tasted it we all thought 'Yuck' – but the lemongrass is still in the drawer, it might come in handy. I buy different salad dressings, but we keep going back to our old favourites, like Caesar dressing. Apple and ginger sounded nice but it was horrible – I haven't thrown it away, though. If I'm shopping with my children or husband they'll see something and say 'Ooh, that looks nice'. So we buy it, and then they never fancy eating it. I buy foods like curry sauce for the week, but like cooking when I've got time.

I've got about 30 cookery books and I use about four regularly. I also swap recipes. For a dinner party a few weeks ago, I cooked a recipe a friend sent me: chicken scarpariello, garlic, honey, rosemary and lemon juice. I served it with rocket, lettuce and new potatoes, and then we had raspberry Pavlova, which is one of my specialities."

Colin Campbell
The actor, 39, and his partner Becky Gardiner, 38, on maternity leave, live in south London with their three-year-old daughter Morag and five-month-old baby Flora.

"I do most of the cooking, and I use my cookbooks all the time, because I can never remember recipes and I have to look them up to get them exactly right. I like Carluccio, Delia, Nigella, Nigel Slater and Elizabeth David, and my particular favourite is a book called Fifty Classic Curries.

My main standbys are mustard powder, anchovies, and tins and tins of tomatoes; when you've got kids it's much easier to open a can rather than make a fresh tomato sauce. When it comes to curries I use all the spices: cumin, coriander, turmeric, thousands of dried chillis. But there's a jar of tamarind pulp at the back of the cupboard we've had for about two years. There's also some rice stuff, semi-pearled farro, that I bought from an Italian deli because it looked interesting; it's been in the cupboard for about four years and has even moved house with us. It's never even been opened – in fact I've really got no idea what you do with it. We've also got some scofa flour that's been around a long time; it's always an intention to make bread. And I've got some Thai fish sauce; I know it's very trendy but I've only used it once.

Our food cupboard's a terrible mess. When we tidy it – which is only about twice a year – we'll find three half-used packets of couscous or arborio rice because we always assume we haven't got any and buy more – a lot of double buying goes on. We do try and adhere to sell-by dates but sometimes things lurk; the other day we threw out a jar of beetroot with a sell-by date in 1995.

We're carless at the moment, so we tend to shop every day or every other day in our local shops and market, where they sell huge bunches of fresh parsley and coriander for 50p. We keep sausages and fish fingers in stock for Morag, and a few things in the freezer that we can just bung in the oven, but mostly we realise we're running out of something and go and buy some more.

I once did a whole Elizabeth David meal for my birthday; I did a bit of a Jamie Oliver for all my mates. The main course was a daube of beef, stabbed with garlic and olives, with dark rum in the sauce. It took ages to cook but it was rather good."

Patrice Moor
The painter, 43, lives in north London with her husband Andrew, 55, a glass art consultant; they have three children, Edward, 15, and twins Osbert and Mariette, eight.

"I only have two cupboards in the kitchen, and everything has its place. There's virtually nothing I don't use; I have so little space. I keep a few tins, like tomato and tuna; most people seem to keep enough to last through a siege but it would drive me crazy if I had to wade through 20 cans to find what I needed. There are cereals for the children, organic porridge oats, pasta, rice, lots of herbs – I keep thyme, marjoram, oregano and chilli powder. I may have a jar of turmeric I bought for a recipe and didn't use. We do a lot of baking and I make bread and pizzas so there's flour for those. I shop every week, and most food we eat as we buy.

I am half-Dutch, half-Luxembourg, and I think it's to do with my background. Food is important to me and we all eat together at six o'clock in the evening, family life is geared to that meal. We tend to eat the same things over and over again; I do a roast every week, as the children adore it and I cook bangers and mash and shepherds pie, nursery food rather than nouvelle cuisine. I'm also great on big huge salads – much easier than cooking vegetables for a lot of people.

For one recent dinner party I made a pizza with tomato, mozzarella, parmesan and fresh basil, followed by fresh pasta with fresh tomato sauce and a huge salad, and then organic ice-cream – I always keep vanilla and chocolate. We have a fantastic Italian deli nearby, with wonderful cheeses and sausages, and I find Sainsbury's really good. I buy a lot of organic meat there.

Harvest festival is a great time to get rid of things. Most of my cookbooks have gone to the charity shop. I have maybe 10 that I use. Delia's delightful and I like Nigel Slater, but the best is a basic English cookbook. I think it's from Readers Digest – unglamorous but invaluable. Everything you need is in there, and you can jazz up the recipes."

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