Friday, December 28, 2012

The SNAP Challenge, continued

In early December, Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, New Jersey, attempted to live on a mere $5/day. Mayor Booker admitted that he isn't much of a cook. 'Tis a pity, since he would have eaten a bit better if he had learned a few basic skills in the kitchen. He posted his meals each day of the week, and I have to say, they were pretty pitiful. He knew to use beans to get much of his protein, but he had no clue what to do with them, other than put plain canned beans on a salad. Dude! There were a few disparaging comments from the peanut gallery about this, especially after he had a breakfast of lettuce with beans. He would have been better served by bulking up his diet on the tried and true rice and beans (or beans over those baked sweet potatoes he liked so much). Whole countries in Central and South America live on this combination. Poor guy.

The beauty of rice and beans is there are so many choices. First, there are many beans to choose from and even the more expensive ones are downright cheap compared to meat. Among the cheap varieties, you can choose from black beans, pinto beans, navy beans, pink beans, black-eyed peas, and garbanzo beans. Let's take pinto beans to see how they stack up price-wise with other forms of protein. One pound of dried pinto beans cost $1.49/pound.  A pound of dried beans becomes about 5-6 cups of reconstituted beans. That's equivalent to about 2 ½ cans of beans, which would cost $2.70. If Mayor Booker had used dried beans instead of canned beans, he would have stretched his tiny food budget quite a ways. He said he baked sweet potatoes. If he can bake a sweet potato, he can make a pot of beans. How about beans compared to meat? A half cup serving of pinto beans costs 12¢! Mayor Booker is a big guy. Let's say he ate a cup of beans, just to be generous. That's 240 calories of beans for about a quarter. A 4 ounce portion of 85% lean ground beef is about the same number of calories but it would cost you about 80¢. Beans win, big time.

You can eat beans relatively unadorned, cooked in a pot of water with a little bit of salt, and maybe an onion and/or a couple of cloves of garlic. You can switch up the cooking liquid, using coconut milk or stock instead of water (bouillon cubes are inexpensive flavor boosters). You can add a small amount of many tasty meats, like sausage, cooked beef, cooked chicken, or pig products such as bacon. Great way to stretch a little bit of meat. You can add a shot of hot sauce to give them some zip. You can add herbs such as thyme, bay leaves, rosemary, parsley, or cilantro. You can add spices such as dried or fresh chiles, curry, or cumin. If you think plain beans are dull, there are plenty of cheap enhancements to make them more exciting. Beans offer limitless culinary possibilities.

A pot of beans will feed a lot of people cheaply. Serve them over rice and you have a filling tasty meal. As Mark Bittman says in his book The Food Matters Cookbook: "I'm on a mission to make sure every fridge or freezer in America is stocked with a container of home-cooked beans..." Cory Booker could have used some of these.

Pot Beans
(serves 6 very generously, costs $1.30)

¾ pound dried beans (about 2 cups), rinsed and picked over for shriveled beans and pebbles (see Note)
1 large onion, quartered
10 cups water
1 teaspoon salt

Combine beans, onion, and water in a large pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, partly cover, and simmer until the beans are slightly soft but not tender all the way through, about an hour. It might take up to 1 hour 30 minutes if the beans are old.

Add the salt and continue cooking, uncovered, for 15 minutes, or until the beans are tender all the way through. They should be soft enough to mash, especially if you are going to make them into refried beans (yet another tasty bean preparation).

Note: Some beans take longer to soften - garbanzos, for instance. The timing here is good for pinto, black, navy, and pink beans. Though it's unusual to find pebbles in dried beans these days, I still do, so I keep checking! No one wants to bite down on a pebble.

Recipe from Mexico: The Vegetarian Table by Victoria Wise

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