The joyful pleasure of creating something from nothing

When the cupboard is nearly bare and I need inspiration, I turn to a battered old folder stashed in the corner of my overflowing bookcase, bursting with nearly 30 years of dog-eared pages— mostly about food—torn from newspapers and magazines.

One of the most memorable clippings it contains is a column from The Sydney Morning Herald, circa 1995, written by Jill Dupleix. Despite the passage of time, the recipe titles are ones that I easily recall—I don’t have to drag out the folder to recite them. The article is about living in a house during a renovation, suggesting meals to cook with a limited kitchen—maybe just an electric plug-in cooktop, or a camping gas stove. Today, even with a full battery of kitchen appliances at my fingertips, I’m drawn to recipes such as ‘All I’ve Got is a Pot Chicken with Potatoes, Leeks and Thyme’, ‘All I’ve Got is a Wok Hokkien Noodles with Roast Duck and Choy Sum’ and ‘All I’ve Got is a Pan Broken Pasta with Spicy Tomato Sauce’. What I find memorable about this article is not only the catchy titles, the clever recipes, but how comforting and delicious everything sounds. Flicking through these recipes today, (I did end up dragging out the folder) I’m desperate to head into the kitchen and whip up the one-pan quick pasta dish for lunch. So I do, and it’s perfect.

My bookshelves are filled with tales of restricted culinary endeavours: authors who cook in the most basic of kitchens or with limited access to ingredients—they are my most treasured books. Tales of tiny kitchens such as Laurie Colwin’s witty Home Cooking, a culinary companion that sits just as well on your bedside table as it does in your kitchen.  It’s a classic book on staying home and cooking, and the early chapters tell of meals cooked during Colwin’s university days and in her one-room apartment in Greenwich Village. Colwin delightfully describes the limits of her tiny kitchens and the meals she cooks with a two-burner stove, washing rocket in the bathtub and serving meals on a card table, which she’d slotted between the wardrobe and a two-foot kitchen cabinet.

A corner of Michelle's kitchen at her home in the Huon Valley, Tasmania.

A little further along the bookshelf sits the brilliant part-memoir part-cookbook Honey from A Weed by Patience Gray. The book, subtitled Feasting and Fasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia, recalls her life in remote locations around the Mediterranean with her sculptor husband, on his quest for marble and stone.  Remarkably ahead of its time, Honey From a Weed is detailed in its knowledge of local and seasonal cooking, and foraging as part of daily life. They had no fridge, electricity or running water, in often barren locations where eating with the seasons, foraging for weeds and catching a fish for dinner wasn’t fashionable but born of necessity.

It was in these places that Gray learned that the very best cooking, and therefore eating, ‘is the result of a balance struck between frugality and liberality’. While she celebrates the joy of feasting, it is the limits of the lean times which inspire her most. This is a book about good food and our connection to it; not complicated but appetising, it can be simple and thrifty, using few ingredients and basic equipment.

It seems counterintuitive, but it’s the limits these writers overcome that I find so memorable. Their ability to create something special, not despite the  restrictions, but because of them, to nourish loved ones with meals of elegant resourcefulness.

In a sense, there’s something liberating about not having to make decisions, not being overwhelmed with choices, and there’s a certain level of creativity required when cooking with restricted ingredients or equipment. Swapping one ingredient for another, leaving something out altogether, hand chopping instead of processing, using a whisk instead of an electric mixer. Culinary inspiration often strikes with limitations, creating a joyful pleasure in bringing something new triumphantly to the table.

In the spirit of limitations, I’m sharing a favourite recipe for chocolate cake that has its origins in America during the 1930s Depression, when eggs and butter were a rarity. It’s my go-to cake made from pantry staples. An old-fashioned chocolatey cake that’s quick to make; by virtue of its limited ingredients, it’s essentially vegan and perfect for those suffering pesky allergies, and you could easily swap the flour for your favourite gluten-free version.

I suppose I should also share my take on Jill’s one-pan pasta, not because you’re renovating a kitchen, but because it’s quick and delicious, and you’ll enjoy cooking with a limited amount of washing up.

One-Pot Tomato and Anchovy Spaghetti with Fried Breadcrumbs

You could serve this with grated parmesan cheese, but if you’re in lockdown and you’ve a made a batch of average sourdough (like me), turn a few slices into breadcrumbs, fry them in olive oil until golden and sprinkle those on top instead.

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 French shallots, peeled and sliced

2 garlic cloves, chopped

6 anchovies

a pinch of dried chilli flakes

a good handful of chopped parsley

350 g dried spaghetti

400 g tin of cherry tomatoes

In a large frying pan with a lid, heat the olive oil over medium heat and add the shallots, garlic, anchovies, chilli and half the parsley. Cook until shallots soften. Break the spaghetti in half, toss it in, then add the tomatoes. Carefully fill the empty can with boiling water and add that too. Stir well, cover and cook for 2 minutes.

Remove the lid and give it a good stir to make sure the pasta isn’t sticking to the bottom of the pan. Cover again for a couple of minutes and continue to check and stir every few minutes, adding extra water as the sauce dries out. Continue to cook for about 15 minutes or until the pasta is cooked to your liking.  Season to taste. Toss the remaining parsley on top and sprinkle with your preferred topping.

Old-Fashioned Chocolate Cake

No doubt invented by a resourceful Depression-era housewife, this is sometimes known as a Crazy Cake, as it’s made without eggs or butter. You can simply dust it with icing sugar, but I find a thick layer of your favourite chocolate icing makes it extra special.

3 cups plain flour

2 cups sugar

1/2 cup cocoa powder

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons bicarb soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons white vinegar

1/4 cup (60 ml) espresso coffee

3/4 cup (185 ml) vegetable oil

400 ml boiling water

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Grease and line a 20 cm round cake tin.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, salt and bicarb soda.

In a separate bowl, combine vanilla, vinegar, coffee and oil.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, then add the boiling water: the mixture will foam up and bubble. Stir until combined. Pour the batter into the prepared cake tin.

Bake for 30–35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean. Turn onto a wire rack to cool completely before dusting or icing. ■

This story was first published in Galah issue 0X. To experience the stories in all their print glory, become a print subscriber here.

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