I saw a complaint from someone who was trying to eat cheaply, while eating healthy, so s/he was going heavy on the beans and rice thing, and starting to get bored. It's a fair enough critique of eating very cheaply: things can sometimes get repetitive or tedious, and you don't know quite how to break out of your rut. There are a couple of things you can get started doing, so that you can add interest to your beans and rice meals, while still keeping on a tight budget. This person said that they'd been able to get enough money to add a couple of spices to their beans and rice, and were able to splurge on adding animal products (which, frankly, are way more expensive than vegetables that will give more bulk and interest to the meal), so I'm allowing myself the addition of a few vegetables into this mix, to keep things interesting.
First, you really need to familiarise yourself with a basic daal tarka. I don't mean the complex ones involving multiple layers of spices, and all kind of vegetables. I'm talking your basic, starter edition.
2 cups of dried beans, soaked and cooked (buying dried beans will drop down the cost considerably from the cost of tinned; if you don't have the time for soaking and boiling, use red lentils, split peas, or brown lentils, which will cook up just as quickly.)
1 TB canola or other vegetable oil (don't substitute olive oil; its smoke point is way too small to allow the popping of spices)
1/2 tsp cumin seed (do not substitute powdered)
1/2 tsp coriander seed, lightly crushed (do not substitute powdered)
1 medium onion, chopped
1/4 tsp turmeric powder (if you can't find turmeric powder, use 1 tsp of curry powder)
Salt and black pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups water (either the cooking liquid from the beans, or fresh water if you threw them out already)
In a pot, add the oil, and heat it over highest heat. When the oil is hot enough that a bit of smoke escapes the surface, you're ready to add the spices. Add the coriander seed, wait about 30 seconds, and add the cumin seeds. These seeds will pop like mad. This is OK. When the popping has subsided, add the onion, and stir well to combine in the fat and spices. Add the turmeric powder after the onion cooks for about two minutes (still on highest heat). Once the onions are softened (not browned), add the cooked beans, the water, salt, and pepper. Stir to combine. Taste for seasoning, and adjust as necessary.
Why did I start in on this? I wanted to start somewhere, so that we're all on the same page when I discuss the variations. Because, you see, the variations are endless.
If you're not able to afford a lot of different things, buy one or two of each veg at the store, which won't amount to much money, and do some of the following.
- When you add the onions, augment it with one carrot, one chopped jalapeno (or other chile) of your choice. I remember when I was really broke one time, and wanted some chile peppers in my daal, and I went to the store. I bought 3. They cost about $1.50/lb, because they were out of season. The 3 chiles came to a few cents. I just needed one or two for each day, and I couldn't afford a full pound at the time. The cashier gave me an odd look, but let me get what I wanted.
- Instead of the chile pepper, substitute a red, green, or yellow pepper, and a pinch of cayenne pepper. It'll give the lovely spiciness of a chile peppers while adding a fair bit more bulk and colour.
- If you see it on sale, add a couple of ears of corn to the pot after you add the beans.
- If you have it, add 2 chopped plantains (skin and all) to the cooked onions, right after the onions are tender. All of a sudden, you'll have a potato-like vegetable added in, while still giving you a lot more nutrition than a plain white potato will give you. The plantain skin, when stove-roasted, gives a very interesting and tasty texture that I really hope you'll try.
- If you can find it, add 3 chopped chayotes to the cooked onions, and sautee them until they're soft.
- Before adding the cumin and coriander seed, add about 1 tsp of black or white mustard seeds to the hot fat, and slam on the lid. The mustard seeds will pop like mad, smell amazing, and add a whole different dimension to the dish.
- After popping the cumin and coriander, add 1 tsp of either white or black sesame seeds. Again, you'll boost the iron content, and add lots of taste. This is such a family favourite that my mother adds sesame seeds to her popping spices quite frequently.
- Add any kind of dark leafy green that you can find at the store, from spinach, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, radish greens, escarole, endive, watercress, etc.
- If you're using large beans (kidney, black turtle, white, adzuki, chickpeas, etc), drain them after cooking, and dry roast them. There's a recipe in the book, but the basic concept is to just pop the spices, add some cooked and drained beans, add turmeric, salt, and chiles, then toss them around in the pan until they're roasted on the outside, and creamy on the inside. The beans get a completely different texture and flavour. Everything takes on a much different feeling.
- If you're using the large beans, and brown rice, try a brown rice & beans salad. Add chopped raw onions, some canned, frozen, or fresh corn, a diced tomato, diced cucumber, diced bell pepper, some shredded carrot, the juice of one lime, some salt, cumin powder, cilantro, and some salt and pepper. The beauty of the salad is that during those hot summer months, you can eat it cold, and add pretty close to whatever vegetable you like in the mix, and still keep things interesting. In fact, you could even toss that salad with a bunch of lettuce leaves to bulk it out a bit, and drizzle with a bit of olive oil, and you're ready to eat!
- Mash cooked beans and rice together, along with sauteed onion, garlic, a bit of carrot, and seasoning of your choice, then press into flat patties to bake at 350 for like 20 minutes or so. Eat over a green salad.
The sky is the limit when it comes to beans and rice, especially when you start pulling from other cultures, like Jamaican Rice & Peas, or Costa Rican Gallopinto, or North Indian daals, or Louisiana Red Beans & Rice. There are hundreds of other varieties, especially when you expand your budget to include different spices, spice blends, etc, different kinds of interesting vegetables (just buy one or two if you're broke), different beans, and different rice.