Lunch Under $5 – Beans & Rice

As someone who spent nine years in college, I learned frugality alongside learning to cook as an adult. At first that was cooking noodles and dumping a can of sauce on top of it. Or making a packet of ramen with some frozen veggies thrown in. But as I learned more about simple techniques and spice profiles, the more I wanted to experiment with recipes that weren’t on the back of Hamburger Helper boxes.

The dish that truly got me through grad school was beans and rice. I know this sounds simple, because, well, it is. But like fried rice, this dish is a great way to get through many of the odds and ends in your fridge and can be changed to fit whatever type of bean you have lying about either in can or dried form.

I’m going to walk you through the making of one particular dish–a Mexican-spiced black beans and rice–but note that there are endless variations that can fit with what’s in your fridge and pantry.

What You’ll Need

The basic to any beans and rice, are, well, beans and rice. You can make this dish with any beans–black beans, pinto beans, chickpeas, black-eyed peas, lima beans, pigeon peas, white beans, etc etc. Just think about the flavor profiles that ago along with those beans both in terms of fresh ingredients and dried herbs and spices. If you’re unsure, Google the providence of the beans and where they are eaten most.

For example, in the Mexican-spiced beans, I used cumin, cilantro, green onion, jalapeño, and garlic. (I could have also added Mexican oregano as well, though I’m currently out of it.) Here’s a terrific guide from about the general spice choices for several cuisines. The more you cook, the more intuitive and expansive these will become.

For most versions, you will also want onion (of some variety–don’t have to be picky), garlic (same), and some sort of pepper.

The Beans

If you’re cooking your beans from dry, you’ll want to soak them in cool water overnight. In the morning, drain them and give them a rinse. (If they smell a little funky, you may have accidentally started fermenting them. It’s totally fine! Rinse and keep going.)

Fun trick: You can freeze your beans at this stage so you can skip this process next time around! So if you have freezer space and are, like me, bad at remembering to soak beans the night before, freeze some extra to have for next time; you can skip to the next step from frozen.

Then you’ll want to cook them at a low boil in some veggie stock for about half an hour until tender. I tossed in a bay leaf and a chunk of green garlic stem (tis the season) as well.

Dried beans cooking with bay leaf and green garlic.

After they are tender to the tooth, drain, rinse, and remove the bay leaf.

Alternatively, you can also just use a can of beans. Just make sure to rinse them beforehand.

The Veg

I would say that you’ll always want onions and garlic. However, if you have neither, powdered is fine. Chop these fine along with any other vegetables you want to include. You can really add anything that’s in the fridge–squash or zucchini, leeks, sweet peppers, hot peppers, corn, cabbage, whatever, you want to get rid of. Just make sure that the bean content is at least 50% of the final mix.

For mine I had some green onion tops, a tomato, half of a garlic scape, a jalapeño, half a lime, and cilantro.

These items (also with the use of black beans) leaned towards Mexican, so I also added ground cumin. However, if I’d used chickpeas I may have gone more Middle Eastern and therefore added some za’atar, sumac, or ground coriander. The only thing I wouldn’t include are whole spices (cloves, cardamom pods, etc) with the beans. They’re hard to fish out at the end, though you can spice your rice with them!

Dice your vegetables up and add them to a warm pan over medium heat with the oil or fat of your choosing. Add your dried spices, salt, and pepper.

Saute until soft then add in the beans and cook for an additional five minutes or so. At this point, you’ll want to taste to adjust whatever seasoning you’ve added and add your acid, usually a splash of lemon or lime juice. (I added a teaspoon of homemade hot sauce at this point too.)

The Rice

You can use whatever rice you’d like for this. Be sure to rinse your rice before you use it for better results.

Typically I just use a long-grain rice cooked in water with a dash of salt and a bay leaf. However, you can also add Goya seasoning powder to the rice to make it tastier. Or some MSG (a fave as you know) or toasted whole spices. Play around here too, but also make sure to consider spice profiles.

The Toppings

Black beans and rice with Honduran cream and cilantro.

Now you top your cooked rice with your bean mixture. Then you can add all sorts of tasty toppings. Here are some that I recommend:

  • Sour cream
  • Shredded cheese
  • Fresh diced tomato (if you didn’t cook some in)
  • Crema
  • Diced avocado
  • Labneh
  • Shredded lettuce or cabbage
  • Chopped herbs like cilantro, basil, oregano, etc
  • Cheese sauce

Try out different things. Use what you have. Learn what you like.

A can of beans and half a cup of uncooked rice will feed two opulently for way less than $5. (Depending on what you use, maybe even less than $1.)

Let us know your favorite combos in the comments and eat cheap this week.

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