Eat for Eight Bucks: Black Beans and Brown Rice
Over the holidays, I twice made my parents black-eyed peas and rice. They declared it delicious and themselves eager to eat it, even the second time, but then a cloud of worry crossed my mother's face: Was my little family, she asked, eating beans and rice so often because we had to?
Nope. It's true that beans and rice are cheap, and that we couldn't afford to eat meat every single day of the week (at least, not the kind of meat we choose to buy). But it is equally true that few meals are so healthy, so filling, so effortless, and—yes—so delicious as plain old beans and rice. Learning how to cook beans properly is the best thing you can do if you're trying to eat well and cheaply.
In my early twenties, I ate Zatarain's black beans and rice, having somewhere picked up the idea that beans are hard to cook yourself. They are not. Although I usually do a "quick soak" (by boiling the beans hard for 2 minutes and then letting them sit in the hot liquid, covered, for 2 hours before proceeding to cook), in my experience soaking isn't really necessary, as long as you have time to monitor a quietly bubbling pot.
I use plenty of water, maintain the gentlest simmer possible, and check frequently near the end of cooking in order to catch the beans at the point where they are creamy on the inside but not overcooked. Taste a few beans at a time and crush a few between thumb and forefinger. When crushed they should simply yield and your fingers should meet each other; the bean should not crumble to bits. Sometimes I don't get it quite right, but black beans and pinto beans are good starter varieties, easier to work with than chickpeas. When the beans are soft and cooked all the way through, I usually let them cool in their cooking liquid.
As for canned beans, I'm not a snob about their supposedly metallic taste, but I am a little freaked out about BPA. Although I've heard that Eden Organic does not use BPA in their can lining, they also charge more than I'm willing to pay for beans. I've gotten into the habit of making big pots myself and then freezing 2-cup Mason jars full of beans in their own cooking liquid. It's like making your own convenient cans.
Last week in my tireless efforts to find new variations on that theme of legumes and grains for this column, I tried a recipe for a sort of bean pancake--just like your weekend hotcakes, except full of mashed beans. It was, I'm sorry to say, not a success.
Left with a big pot of black beans and a spoiled dinner, what did I do? I cooked a chopped onion until it was soft and browning, added garlic, cumin, salt, and pepper, and stirred in a few cups of beans, letting them bubble for a few minutes before spooning them over brown rice. With or without salsa, cheese, and cilantro, it was tastier and easier than those gummy bean pancakes. It reminded me how good a simple bowl of beans and rice can be, and so I thought I'd remind you.