Desperation dinners

Quick fix ....  good scrambled eggs are almost soupy.

Quick fix .... good scrambled eggs are almost soupy. Photo: Julian Kingma

There are some shameful episodes in my past. No, not the guilty McDonald’s Filet-O-Fishes or the dodgy floppy kebabs, the pizzas indistinguishable from the flat-packs in which they arrive or the execrable supermarket freezer dinners-in-boxes.

I’m remembering instead, wretched late-evening meals pulled together when weariness is saturating, cash is short or the fridge is like an art installation, full of condiments and dead things.

The burnt toast and the canned soup and the cheese-on-crackers. The quinoa porridge (the Rotorua mud pool of suppers) attempted during a fleeting, misguided health-farmish phase and rejected even by the compost worms. The murky, scavenged-vegetable soup made with good intentions but no clue. The “taco” assembled from ancient frozen pita bread and leftover curry (I can only explain the creative muse for that last to a glass or more of something white and crisp on the way home.)

I’ve discussed the pressing first-world problem of desperation dinners with friends and realise I have a great deal to learn. One buddy, who has eaten at stellar restaurants from New York to Barcelona, keeps her freezer stocked with bags of pork and chive dumplings from her local Asian grocer. "I do a mountain of dumplings and slurp them down with black vinegar," she says. "It's basically starch, meat and some chemicals." (This particular friend still pines for her days living in Manhattan, where she kept a “library” of home-delivery menus. Meat-loaf sandwiches from the Lyric Diner on 3rd Avenue, noodles from the Laotian place around the corner, udon from the local Japanese.)

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Another friend reports on her impressive efforts: “I have taken to doing quick couscous, with currants, spring onions, Italian parsley from the garden, pine-nuts or slivered almonds, and whatever not-too-ancient veg might be in the bottom of the crisper ... a knob of butter, olive oil, salt and pepper and a glass of riesling — not too shabby!”
And Twitter acquaintances have shared their thoughts too: "Cheese on toast — Quite elaborate little mini-pizzas, actually, with olives, mushrooms, whatever is in the fridge," confided my colleague Michael Bachelard (@mbachelard), Indonesia correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

The demands of the health system must take their toll on @pathologic_kt a doctor in Wollongong, who takes a line of least resistance. “Baked beans on toast. Or peanut butter on toast.”

And from the co-editor of The Age Good Food Shopping Guide 2011 Roslyn Grundy (@onetui), outdoing herself as usual: “Egg fried rice: leftover rice fried with garlic, eggs, soy sauce and a few drops of sesame oil.”

Still on the rice theme, and for those who just happen to keep a bucket of kimchi in their fridge, @jazzmeintea suggests kimchi fried rice. “Easy! Cooked rice with scrambled eggs, sliced kimchi, kimchi juice and dash of soy. Perfect late night snack.”

“Pesto? Check! Spaghetti? Check! Dinner? Check! ;),” wrote Katoomba-based graphic designer Andrew Faith (@andrewfaith)

“A peanut butter and mashed banana sandwich, a microwaved rice casserole, crackers and Nutella!,” @SashG chimed in from Mumbai, India, where she is a writer and editor for healthylivingindia.org.

And one of my personal favourites, suggested by Sydney blogger Tina (@foodboozeshoes): “Pasta with parmesan and whatever herbs on hand,” she suggested. Add garlic and call it pasta aglio olio. Add chilli, call it spaghetti aglio olio e peperoncino, and it's even better.

I have had my triumphs in the desperation dinner stakes. The stars came into alignment a couple of nights back, for example, when I stumbled home in an artistic fever from beginners drawing classes. I can thank a colleague’s happy hens and their feather-stuck eggs and some decent leftovers — a sliver of roasted ocean trout and some labne (yoghurt cheese — a story for another day).

Scrambled eggs, I decided. “Good scrambled eggs can be slurped up with a straw and they need to be cooked slowly,” Melbourne-based, London-bound chef Greg Malouf once told me.

With that in mind, I melted the tiniest bit of butter in a saucepan and rolled in a couple of Sahlan’s Special Eggs. Over a low heat I broke them up gently and, as they started to stick to the bottom, nudged them up with a wooden spoon, from time to time lifting the pan up from the heat to slow the cooking. Five minutes or so of nudging — I like them so the eggs are almost soupy — a little salt and white pepper, and that’s it. Flaked ocean trout and a dollop of labne on top. A not-quite-so desperate dinner.

But I’ll take more suggestions. I’m still getting flashbacks about that taco.

Follow Stephanie on Twitter: @StephanieAWood1

 

13 comments so far

  • soup. They last for ages, cost hardly anything and take up hardly any room in the pantry. Plus its a 3 step process.. open the can put it into a bowl and cook in the microwave for about 3 seconds. No pots or pans to clean up and you have a meal within 5 mins.

    Commenter
    undisclosed
    Location
    undisclosed
    Date and time
    February 23, 2012, 10:11AM
    • I think your friends are a bit too 'upper middle class' to really understand the concept of desperation meals - seriously - couscous + five more ingredients? Soup and toast? Kim chi fried rice? Pork and chive dumplings? I don't think 'desperation' means what they think it means. Desperation food is packet noodles, just toast for dinner, cereal for dinner.

      Commenter
      Nerida
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      February 23, 2012, 10:27AM
      • I'm with you Nerida, that doesn't sound like desperation food too me. If you've got kim chi and roast ocean trout in the fridge then you ain't that desperate. Try maggie noodles with a tin of sardines, buttered toast and canned beetroot or cornflakes with water for desperation. Although I do agree with you on the usefulness of scrambled eggs when the cupboards are bare.

        Commenter
        samson8or
        Location
        sydney
        Date and time
        February 23, 2012, 12:18PM
    • I have to agree with Nerida. The desperation meals your friends are making sound a bit too up market to be desperation food.

      I remember my mother making spaghetti with ketchup for dinner. It was disconcerting to eat. Pretty sure that tops your taco thing for inedible food.

      I try to keep any "budget meals" or "quick and easy meals" a standard above ketchup pasta (possibly two or three steps above!)

      Commenter
      Shell
      Date and time
      February 23, 2012, 11:56AM
      • Hit the freezer...Yeah Chicken / Beef whatever by God how long has it been there ? It looks like a chunk of ice in a bag. Defrost in microwave and find its not what you thought. Often late into the meal prep - Hell what goes on the pizza now?

        Mystery meat susprise. Steak that is actually strog meat (or is it chuck steak). (That went with jacket potato and chilli sauce & was awesome) Chicken that is fish or vice versa. (Thai surprise??) Worst was the apparent hotdogs which were cabanossi. Cabanossi doesnt go on a bun !!

        undisclosed - Soup isnt a meal. Ever. Its something to have with bread before a meal. Soup was invented by women to get men to eat something healthy by hiding "good" stuff.

        Commenter
        Paul
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        February 23, 2012, 11:58AM
        • Pasta dressed with extra virgin, sauteed garlic and onion, and whatever solid greens I have on hand (asparagus, green beans, even frozen corn/peas will do). If I've got them, I'll throw in toasted pinenuts and/or leftover chicken or prawns.

          Or my version of a basic fried rick: rice cooked with soy and hoisin, tossed in a hot wok with egg, sauteed onion and garlic, frozen peas and corn.

          Commenter
          Charlie
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          February 23, 2012, 12:28PM
          • Desperate dinner no 1. Frozen peas and corn mushed with microwaved potato (plus butter)
            Desperate dinner no 2. Canned 4 bean mix + canned tuna. Add other ingredients as discovered (e.g. avocado, tinned beetroot, onion)
            Desperate dinner no 3. Canned tuna with cheese on toast
            Desperate dinner no 4. Corn, canned tuna and cheese tossed through pasta.
            I am sure there are many many more... my fiancé thinks I am insane.

            Commenter
            Georgie
            Location
            Melbourne
            Date and time
            February 23, 2012, 2:05PM
            • Mi Goreng noodles were a staple during my penny-pinching student days (and can still be found occasionally lurking at the back of my pantry).

              Baked beans (purchased on special or in the "value packs") with grated cheese stirred through (optional) to melt into the tomato sauce was another cheap and easy meal.
              Sometimes I would make toasted sandwiches with a Jaffle maker (a leaving home gift from a practical mum) if I could afford the cheese.

              Commenter
              rebel_lemming
              Location
              Sydney
              Date and time
              February 23, 2012, 2:25PM
              • I remember spending a weekend with friends and hankering for some snacks late one night when the shops were all closed - we ended up eating cold cooked pasta dipped in tomato sauce. It was a fun night!

                Commenter
                Juliet
                Date and time
                February 23, 2012, 3:29PM
                • While I'm in agreement with the first 3 posts including the monthypythonesque outrage - "Desperation? I've eaten plain weetbix and tap water swilled through an empty sugar bowl ..." etc. Those so called desperation meals sound like gourmand excess to the harsh realities of boiled rice and sardines in tomato sauce. I think the point is missed a bit by labouring the poshness. Low supplies means creativity and effort and sometimes the magic happens... just never to me.

                  Commenter
                  Pseudogastromica
                  Date and time
                  February 23, 2012, 8:12PM

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