Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Spicy beans and rice

I think I've mentioned that I live in the southern half of Texas (for those not familiar with the geography, that's an important distinction. You have to drive almost 600 miles from the area north of Dallas/Fort Worth to Brownsville, and it's almost 900 miles from the northern part of the panhandle to Brownsville, about as far from northern France to Madrid...) We eat a bit differently in this area, with some seasonings like powdered cayenne pepper being about as common as black pepper most places, not to mention fresh peppers of every sort. Salsa can appear on almost anything, and you can serve almost anything on a tortilla.

This past weekend was Chilifest weekend in the small town of Snook, Texas, a town which I'm glad isn't to close. I'd love to sample a few of the prize winners and listen to the live music, but large quantities of beer will be consumed, especially by the local college students, almost always a dangerous mix. I'm not a non-drinker, but I avoid situations with lots of drunks...

As every Texan knows, real chili doesn't involve beans (a surprise to most people). However, there are various dishes, sometimes called "ranch beans" that do involve beans and chili powder, and can be delicious, nutritious, and cheap. In honor of Chilifest, here's one of my versions:

Start with 5 cups of water, add some beef bouillon (it can be made without this, but isn't as good). Add salt, pepper, a dash of cayenne pepper, and some garlic salt or fresh, crushed garlic. Then, add some sort of chili powder. We have a local brand that's cheap and has a kick (actually a chili mix intended to be added to chili meat and water). The first time you make this, be cautious with the cayenne and chili powder until you get some idea how spicy your brand is.

Bring to a boil, then rinse and add about 3/4 cup of pinto beans and 1/4 cup of brown rice. Bring back to a boil, then cover and lower to a simmer for about half an hour, stirring every 10 minutes at least. Add about 1/2 to 1 cup of diced onions. I use the frozen ones, which means I have to raise the heat for a few minutes, then lower back to a simmer. Simmer for another 20 minutes, then test the beans for tenderness. Keep testing until they're just right. Test the broth for flavor and add salt and pepper as needed. This is even better if you add some browned meat, with the beans and rice if using cubed meat or with the onions if using ground meat.

The beans for this cost about $.12, the brown rice, about $.05, the bouillon, about $.05, the onions, about $.40, and the spices, about $.08. That's a large pot for about $.70, probably enough for 3 or 4 lunches, served without bread, or 4 or 5 with. The cost could be cut further by reducing the onion or chopping your own, but onion is a high-nutrition food, so I'd only recommend that if you're really desparate. Meat would add considerably to the cost, but it would still be between $1.50 and $2 for several meals worth. It does take experimenting to get the seasoning right, but if you end up with a batch that's too bland, you can always add some more seasoning and cook longer, or just add the cooked beans and rice to another pot of soup if they're impossilbly bland. If they're too spicy, you can bland them down by adding potato and cooking until that's tender. At this price, you can afford to do some experimenting.

One note about beans and grains---insects. Freezing dry beans is probably the best solution to this, but be careful of dampness when thawing them. We use bay leaves around ours, but if I had a choice, I'd freeze them in small quantities and thaw enough for a couple of weeks at a time.

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