Sitting in the bedroom of a north London home with just a kettle, Thermos flask, rice, lentils and curry powder, I'm wondering how these items are going to produce a meal, let alone an edible one. I'm not a culinary whizz at the best of times, but the wasteland of equipment and ingredients in front of me is surely a guarantee of failure. Fortunately, I've got Hugh Morrison by my side, author of How to Cook Without a Kitchen, and an experienced man when it comes to feeding himself with the most basic of ingredients and facilities.
We're making lentil curry, from one of the recipes in his book. It's simple, as they all are, so should be manageable even for me. We put the kettle on to boil, then put one cup of red lentils and two cups of rice in a Thermos flask. Then it's just a case of adding a couple of teaspoons of curry powder, covering it with hot water, putting the lid on and leaving it for about two hours. “It's not an exact science, so you have to keep checking until you get the consistency you want,” says Hugh. “If you soak the lentils overnight beforehand, they'll cook quicker.”
Luckily for me, Hugh has started one dish before we meet up. We add a bit of olive oil and more curry powder, then we're ready for a taste test. And it's surprisingly good. The lentils and rice are the right consistency, maybe a tiny bit on the al dente side, but it's also tasty and I could easily eat a whole bowl of it.
Aimed at students, people in small homes or shared houses, or people on their travels, the book draws on Hugh's own experiences and aims to provide a single source for people who find themselves without a kitchen. From his student digs, with its kitchen shared between 50 people, to the tiny kitchen in his first London flat, and even the months spent in a hotel room in India, the 43-year-old is well versed in how to make something out of nothing.
Many of the cooking tips mark a return to methods originating hundreds of years ago, simply incorporating modern receptacles. For example, Hugh tells me that flask cooking isn't too different from traditional hay boxes, which basically use retained heat. He also has plenty of tips to help make meals as tasty as they can be. “A little bit of olive oil, garlic and herbs will liven up anything,” he says. “I've tried all the recipes myself, so I know they work, but some of them need a bit of tinkering to get them right.”
One of his favourite recipes is his own version of spaghetti bolognese – made with corned beef instead of minced beef. “Everyone thinks corned beef is this thing you have on sandwiches as a kid and it tastes horrible. But when you mix it up with tomato sauce and things, it loses that canned-food flavour. Be sure to include a bit of the yellow fat from the meat, it's vile when cold but when cooked it adds a lot of flavour.”
My confidence buoyed, we make a few other things. Boiled eggs? No, you don't need a saucepan and a hob – just a roasting bag and an electric kettle. It does take a bit longer than a pan, though – about 10 minutes for a hard-boiled egg. The same goes for vegetables parboiled using a sealable plastic box and some water. Put the finely sliced veg in a box, add boiling water and seal the lid. In 10–15 minutes they will be parboiled, but to get them softer, replace the water with freshly boiled and let them sit for another 10 minutes. None of the recipes are haute cuisine and they're highly unlikely to win any awards for culinary complexity, but that's not the point. This book is about helping people produce simple, healthy meals with scant equipment or ingredients. There are also chapters on a balanced diet, how to wash up without a sink and how to grow edible plants without a garden.
“An early influence was my grandfather, who used to do things like make wine from marrows, grow his own tobacco and make beautiful furniture out of scrap timber he found in skips,” Hugh explains. “When I was a student, we had one tiny kitchen and I remember thinking: I wish there was some way around this.”
With no fridge, he made an evaporative cooler, or “zeer pot”, out of two pans and some water. Used in Africa and the Middle East, zeer pots consist of two terracotta pots, one inside the other, with the gap between them filled with wet sand. As the water evaporates from the outer pot it draws heat away from the inner one, acting like a cooler. “I'd heard of this from my grandmother, who told me that was how they kept milk cool in the days before fridges. However, I only used it to keep my gin and tonic cool.
“When I moved to London I had a kitchen that was about 5ft by 4ft, a cupboard really. I was a bit depressed at first but it was a really nice flat so I decided to stay there.”
He soon learned more tricks, from growing food on the windowsill to baking bread in a toaster oven and making his own wine with berries and nettles foraged from London parks. “I grew chives, cherry tomatoes, wild garlic and beansprouts. I also learnt to cook all kinds of food in a microwave, and realised you can do pretty much anything – but I learnt the hard way that pilchards will explode.”
He ended up staying in the flat for a decade, using just the tiny kitchen to cook not only for himself, but to entertain friends as well. “I celebrated the Millennium in my flat with three friends eating a four-course meal cooked entirely on a Baby Belling.”
Hugh's education continued in 2010 when he lived for four months in a hotel in India, where he was editing a local publication for Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala, in the Indian Himalayas, as well as teaching English to Buddhist monks. “I started thinking about simple cooking methods, as I noticed how most of the local people lived on basic foods such as rice and lentils, cooked on little paraffin stoves.
“I was invited to supper by two Tibetan refugees in my conversation class. They lived in a shack about 8ft square and did all the cooking on a tiny meths stove. This really made me realise you don't need anything fancy to make a good meal.”
Hugh still practises his skills and on his last two holidays, in Malta and Spain, cooked all his meals in hotel rooms using local ingredients, a kettle and flask. But he is quick to mention that he hasn't invented all the recipes himself, and just wanted to compile a one-stop guide. “There's this misconception that anything quick has to be pre-packaged. I didn't really just want to do a book of recipes, it was about changing people's mindset.”
He's right – why would you use a flask if you've got a saucepan? But there are plenty of situations where this smart and thrifty advice could be a real lifesaver. µ
'How to Cook Without a Kitchen' by Hugh Morrison (£4.99) is out now
Boil-in-the-bag spaghetti bolognese
Approx 100g spaghetti
Half a tin corned beef
2 dessert spoons tomato purée
1 dessert spoon olive oil
Equipment Thermos flask
Add spaghetti and boiling water to your flask. Put the lid on and leave for 20–30 minutes to cook. Take quarter to half of the tin of corned beef, put in the roasting bag. Add tomato purée, mixed herbs and the olive oil. Mix together. Put the bag into the kettle of boiling water, drape the top of the bag over the side and put the lid down. Boil in the bag until ready and serve with the spaghetti.
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