At Bibendum, I always have plenty of long-life produce - store cupboard items really, such as good quality pulses: Puy lentils, chick peas and extra fine dried beans from Spain (some of the best I have ever tasted); also rice for risotti and pilaff. There will be tins of duck gizzards preserved in duck fat (gesiers confit), tins of Spanish peeled peppers (that have been blistered over a wood fire) and bottles of pickled green chillies from the same source. These last two are wonderful chopped up into an impromptu salad with, perhaps, some sliced hard-boiled eggs and anchovy, or mixed into some tabbouleh along with masses of chopped mint, parsley, garlic and lots and lots of lemon juice.
Smoked products are also very good to have around. They keep well and can be used in myriad preparations: warm salads with haddock and salmon, eel fillets sliced up over hot potatoes and served with fresh horseradish and pickled cucumber. Simple smoked cod's roe cut into thin slivers and eaten with warm, creamy scrambled eggs and buttered toast. And even those dear old kipper fillets. Do you remember that charming little first course that incessantly went the rounds of chic dinner parties during the Seventies? People used to exclaim how it ended up tasting like smoked salmon - "and much cheaper darling!" All it entailed was to buy a packet of two kipper fillets, which you then sliced thinly, marinated in a little lemon juice, with some thyme, sliced onion and black pepper, left to marinate for 24 hours and served with brown bread and butter. No doubt today, a small slick of extra virgin olive oil would be de rigueur.
You might say that it is extravagant to buy in an excessive amount of provisions when you haven't a clue what you might use them for. But if you cook with flair and use a little imagination, the rest will happily fall into place. Remember, good cooks never waste anything - and you do not need a professional training to be careful and even parsimonious.
Take inexpensive, fresh chicken: those juicy and flavoursome thigh portions are a terrific multi-purpose ingredient and always a cheaper alternative to the ubiquitous breast (wings are even cheaper and provide a good chew). Even if you don't want to use them on the day of purchase, they will keep well in the fridge for at least three days. Or they could be slashed a little with a sharp knife, sprinkled with lemon or lime juice, soy, garlic, dried chilli, ginger, honey and a splash of dry sherry, then left to marinate for a couple of days. These are marvellous barbecued, oven roasted or grilled, until nicely blackened and sticky. And you might like to serve them with a potato salad, pepped up with some fresh coriander and a pinch of toasted cumin seed.
All the above ingredients help towards putting together dishes that are off-the-cuff, frivolous even, and certainly spontaneous. It is a good game, creative shopping. Searching out the best new potatoes for that vaguely Oriental salad, or buying up some slightly soggy, past-it tomatoes for soup or sauce - and often at a knock-down price, too. But, of course, it is not just a matter of throwing things together. Thinking seasonally is a useful guideline. Fresh green spring vegetables come together wonderfully in a classic risotto primavera ("springtime") or can be used in a light and limpid clear soup enlivened with some chopped mint - the essence of summer - and particularly good when chilled.
Then there is the eternal standby, fresh farm eggs. Spanish omelette, classically made simply with onions and potatoes, is one of my all time favourite things. It can be one of the nicest things to eat, out of doors, on a sunny day. But there are some sassy modifications that may be made, even with the most simple fare. The following rolled Spanish omelette recipe spontaneously came about, firstly, because these few ingredients were lurking about, and, secondly, I had reason to impress some last-minute guests, some of whom were vegetarian and needed pampering.
Rolled Spanish Omelette with Salsa, serves 4
For the omelettes
2tbs olive oil
2 onions, peeled and finely chopped
6 very fresh eggs (size 2)
6tbs double cream
salt and pepper
4 medium sized new potatoes scraped clean, boiled and cooled (about 75g/3oz cooked weight)
1 large bunch chives, finely chopped
A little more olive oil, for cooking the omelettes
For the salsa
6 ripe tomatoes, skinned, de-seeded and coarsely chopped
1 small red onion, peeled and finely chopped
12 bunch of coriander, leaves only, coarsely chopped
juice of 2 limes
2 green chillies, de-seeded and chopped
12tbs oriental fish sauce (optional - this is a personal touch. I like the flavour, and use it in place of salt, but it is unconventional)
For the garnish
2-3tbs sour cream
sprigs of fresh coriander and chopped chives
Light an overhead, radiant grill. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan and cook the onions until pale golden. Drain in a sieve to collect any oily juices; these can be used to cook the omelettes in if you like. Beat the eggs together with the cream and seasonings. Measure the beaten egg mixture; there should be about 12floz. Pour an omelette's worth of beaten egg (about 3floz) into a small bowl and add a quarter of the cooked onion. Coarsely grate one of the potatoes and add t his, together with quarter of the chopped chives. Mix thoroughly. Heat about a teaspoon of oil in a non-stick frying pan about seven or eight inches across the base. When the oil is medium hot, pour in the omelette mixture and turn the heat right down. Allow to set gently on the bottom without colouring and then slip under the grill for a few seconds to set the top.
Slide the omelette on to a double fold of kitchen paper. Leave to cool till lukewarm, but certainly not cold. Lift off the kitchen paper onto a square-ish sheet of aluminium foil and tightly roll up, as you would a Swiss roll. Twist the ends of the foil to seal even tighter. The result should resemble a longish, fat Christmas cracker. Make three more omelettes and then put all four of them into the fridge for one hour, to firm up.
To make the salsa, mix all the ingredients together in a bowl. Cover with a plate or Clingfilm, and leave at room temperature for one hour before using.
To serve the omelettes, unwrap from the foil, slice on a slight diagonal about half-inch thick and arrange on individual, and preferably plain white, plates. Top each slice with a little of the salsa - without too much of the wet juices - and a dab of sour cream. Sprinkle with some of the extra chives and fling some sprigs of coriander about. Drizzle a little olive oil over the salsa, and eat. Hand around any remaining salsa and sour cream separately.
Incidentally, these little rolled omelettes make perfect picnic food. And to ring the changes a little, try rolling a few anchovies or some smoked salmon into the basic omelette. Wafer-thin slices of ham would be good too, served with a pokey mustard mayonnaise instead of the salsa. The possibilities are endless when you really start to think about it
Simon Hopkinson is co-proprietor and founder chef of Bibendum, the acclaimed South Kensington restaurant. He writes here every week