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“Cheap Eats” has a sort of nasty ring to it, but it’s a bit on the real-edgy side, too. I get it. I’ve been without a lot of bucks at the grocery store check out; I’ve had to feed six people three times a day for a lot of years. My stove has cooked many a meal for a big bunch of folks along the way. “Cheap,” though, is tricky to a serious cook; it’s not the thing we’re looking for. “Inexpensive?” Sure. That rocks. Who doesn’t like “inexpensive?” But “cheap” smacks of poorly made or tawdry (think cheapskate) — just not terribly positive, even in today’s world. But when I look hard at it, and we’re all looking hard at things right now, we might be in a place where we need to know exactly what cheap eats are. And I know. The thing is, they’re sometimes pretty good. In fact, if you know how to cook cheap eats that taste good, you’re a mighty special person. You know how to add a thick schmear of seasoned rice at the bottom of each bowl to stretch a few cups of chili. You probably are intimately acquainted with why God made potatoes fried in bacon grease. Or perhaps you can make a big platter of crispy butter biscuits served with a deep bowl of beans and a little chopped bacon and manage to feed 10 hungry people? In other words, you’re like a lot of people’s grandmas who knew from tough times.
And, if we look at what we think of now as beautiful, sophisticated dishes from any old country you want to name, they’re often the meals country people made out of what they had to feed everyone who was coming to the table that night. Tough old pieces of meat simmered for hours with whatever was in the garden or on the shelf or ancient hens cooked to smithereens and served over noodles…maybe vegetables with little other than an onion and some herbs to make them tasty. A few eggs stirred up with a bit of cheese served with yesterday’s bread grilled up with butter and served with jam. Kettle of lentils bubbling on the back burner. The meals made out of what was grown nearby, out of what was available, or out of what some smart cookie had preserved and stored from last season. The food made without a grocery store just down the street.
I often think of a famous set of photographs picturing humans from different parts of the globe with all the food they eat in one week. Hard to look at. I hated thinking where I fit in. I wasn’t in Germany spending 320 euros a week — though I’ve lived there and KNOW how good the food is — but I couldn’t help but feel oh-so-spoiled looking at the American family with all that food plus a couple of take-out pizzas. I mean, in 2013 when the photos were published, I was talking what sort of chocolate to pair with which red wine, while there were people who had £3 to spend on food per week. (I did also publish a soup cookbook that year.) Oh, and their food didn’t look bad; in fact it appeared to be life-giving and wondrous. Wake up call; meat was mostly out of the picture. If by chance you’ve read Dan Buettner’s BLUE ZONES which documents the groups of people who live longest and healthiest on earth and features a mostly vegetarian menu, you’re familiar with the basic tenets as he first published them:
- Stop eating when your stomach is 80 percent full to avoid weight gain.
- Eat the smallest meal of the day in the late afternoon or evening.
- Eat mostly plants, especially beans. And eat meat rarely, in small portions of 3 to 4 ounces. Blue Zoners eat portions this size just five times a month, on average.
- Drink alcohol moderately and regularly, i.e. 1-2 glasses a day.
Hello, healthy carbs as the biggest part of the diet and welcome beans–the original cheap eats. Goodbye big servings of meat. Read an NPR article about the book. A couple of years ago, I was on a stewardship committee at church that included a member who happened to be a heart surgeon. One time, on the way out, folks–as they will–were discussing dinner plans. Meat came up and someone sort of guffawed to the cardiologist over eating too much beef. Surgeon said, “Oh, no; please eat all the meat you want. Fund my four kids’ college educations!” You could tell he’d dined out on the line for years, but that he still was serious as he could be. Right then.
With over 50% of the U.S. population under the age of 45 unemployed right now and considering the scarcity (particularly of meat) in stores, I’m thinking about blogging/re-blogging a few of my fave meals that feed folks for less cash and feature smaller amounts of animal protein. Even if your paycheck is secure, why not join in and save a buck or two? You’ll have more to share with others and you might be healthier; our world might be brighter. Yes, you’ll need to cook and there might be chopping involved (see above) — but I promise it could even be a happy occasion, as health always is.
Let’s start out with some favorite American cheap eats: beans. First there’ll be a few of my very favorite bean recipes–some using dry beans and others made with canned beans. At the end, I’ll throw in the happiest companion, which is cornbread–a staple in my kitchen for which I’ve recently adjusted the recipe. I’m so reminded of the show, “Dinner and a Movie,” that used the music “Beans and Cornbread” as their theme song; why were they sooooo good? While I don’t remember the show’s hosts ever cooking beans and cornbread, though they might have, it’s something I live to eat. Do you or did you eat beans and cornbread? While I grew up with cornbread to die for (my southern-born mom baked by touch), I have little memory of dry beans being cooked in our Chicago suburban house. (My siblings might remember otherwise.) However, I still have wonderful bean-y memories. Beans (pintos) were memorably cooked by kattywampus neighbors originally from Tennessee and generously shared with the neighborhood kids at lunchtime if we were all over there playing in their fields. (The dad also made fried apple hand pies.) The first time my husband (then boyfriend) took me home to meet his parents, my future mother-in-law made a pot of navy beans in what we then called a “crockpot.” (The boyfriend added a big slug of (ugh) ketchup to his bowl. We had talking to do about that.) Later on, after marriage and a kid, we had an across-the-street retired AF flight attendant/nurse named Ruthie Gavitt. Two or three times a year, Ruthie would cross the street with a bowl of pinto beans and ground beef. There was little else in the dish, though Ruthie once quietly confided you could add onion if you liked. Honest to God, they were wonderful just as they were. I’m pretty sure she cooked the beans in water with lots of salt and pepper, browned the ground beef, stirred them together, and called it dinner. It was so good and saved my butt at a time when life was at its very roughest. But not all beans taste like Ruthie’s. And not all cornbread is my mom’s. (Was it the love factor?) I’m still working on it all. But if you want to try my versions — and I hope you do– I’m leaving it here with you and giving you two important pieces of advice. 1: Season the hell out of this stuff or go home broke. Beans are why there is salt, pepper, and Tabasco on earth. 2: Beans take a while to cook, but you can have them done in an hour if you use an INSTANT POT (electric pressure cooker). Totally worth the investment.
So, get soaking. Or not. (Read on for more about that subject.) Here are a few of my happiest bean dishes for whatever your pot may be. Some are vegetarian or vegan; others have at least some meat. I include a couple of chilis for smiles, but if that’s your big desire today, just put “chili” in the search box for a slew of recipes. Here you go … and not a beanie-weanie in sight:
TUXEDO COWBOY BEANS–made with canned beans, but fast, tasty, and filling. Of course, if you like, you could cook a pot of dry beans to make this, but here’s an easy way out.
TIP: When buying beans, look for whole beans and try not to buy chipped or broken beans–those are probably a bit old and will take longer to cook or be tougher.
TIP: Want some meat in your beans? A little will go a long way. Choose from diced ham, diced ham steak, ham bone, ham hock or shank, diced bacon, chopped kielbasa, smoked turkey, smoked pork, ground beef/chicken/turkey/pork, browned bulk breakfast or Italian sausage, or sliced cooked brats.
Slow Cooker Pumpkin-Black Bean Chili–uses a 15-ounce can of pumpkin and smells like heaven. Includes ground turkey, but you can add extra beans in its place or use vegetarian “meat” crumbles. (above)
Cocoa-Chickpea Chili (Vegan)–a long list of veggies can be added to this. Choose your favorites. (above)
TIP: Cook up a pot of plain beans (do use salt and pepper and garlic if you have it) and, when they’re in the bowl, top them off with your choice of minced onion, pickled jalapeños, salsa, grated cheese, hot sauce, diced peppers and celery, fresh chopped herbs, crushed red pepper, red wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, cooked egg (you can cook an egg in cooked beans, too–scroll down), leftover diced meat, etc. Think a fresh canvas with infinite possibilities.
TIP- Ham Hock–great way to flavor beans. A pound of beans needs only one ham hock. (Freeze the other for next time if there are two.) Add the hock to the beans when you begin to cook them. After the beans are tender, remove ham hock, let it cool, remove meat and return shredded meat to pot, discarding hock’s skin, tendons, extra fat, and bones. A ham shank is also useful and has more meat than a hock. (Note: leftover bones are not good for dogs.)
above: ham hocks before cooking
below: ham hocks after cooking and removing meat from the hock
TIP: Rice and beans are, separately, both incomplete proteins; but when they’re eaten together, they’re considered complementary proteins, according to the FDA. (LIVESTRONG.COM)
Smoked Turkey and Bean Soup (Slow Cooker) — can use diced ham, ham hock, or kielbasa instead of smoked turkey.
Split Pea Soup–with or without ham (above)
Tomato-Chickpea Salad (above)
STOVE TOP BACON PINTOS (shown here above with grilled tuna and grilled salad with pickled onions)
TIP: When cooking beans, try a gentle simmer instead of a full boil for beans that remain whole and tender at serving time.
INSTANT POT BACON PINTOS (above)
TIP: While many bean cooks eschew adding salt to the beans as they cook, I beg to differ. Add some while they cook and add some later on. Taste your bean broth as you go along just as you would soup. I like my beans in a bowl really brothy, but if you let them rest in the fridge a couple of days, they’ll have a thicker, more gravy-like consistency you’ll also love.
TIPS–Soaking: The two typical soaking methods are: cover beans with water/lid and let rest all night before draining and cooking OR cover beans with water and boil for two minutes, cover, and let sit an hour before draining and cooking. Beans are soaked to ensure even cooking, to hasten cooking time, and to reduce gas after eating–this last is always questionable, but worth trying if it’s an issue for you. Other people say add garlic or ginger to reduce tummy distress. (Eat legumes often for less distress.)
Forgot to soak your beans? They’ll still cook fine, but will just take longer in the pot. Pick them over well for stones and debris, rinse them several times, and then follow your recipe, adding at least 30 and maybe 60+ minutes cooking time depending on the type, size, and age of the bean. Fresher beans respond better to unsoaked cooking. You can also quick-soak beans in your electric pressure cooker —or– cook them in the electric pressure cooker without soaking.
Tip: Beans been on your shelf over a year? Add 1/4 teaspoon baking soda to the cooking water to help soften them.
I did promise you my reworked cornbread recipe and here it is. There are many wondrous things about cornbread. You’ll be well-loved if you take the time to make cornbread every week. It’ll get better every time, it’s easy to make, and folks love it because cornbread often has taste memories from way back. Cornbread rounds out or stretches a meal in ways plain old white bread never will. It has texture and doesn’t squish. You can eat it for breakfast, lunch, snacks, or dinner. Crumble up a piece into a tall glass of milk and eat it with a spoon late at night or if you have a rumbly in your tummy. It makes tasty croutons, too. (Don’t make them too small; they’ll just crumble.) Just as you might toast bread crumbs for topping a casserole, etc., you can toast cornbread crumbs. They’re lovely on top of a salad or to grace a bowl of puréed soup. Yes, if you have cornbread made, you’re rich indeed.
alyce’s cornbread 2020
- 9-inch cast iron skillet
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup milk
- ¼ cup canola or other neutral oil + 1 tablespoon for bottom of pan — can use melted, cooled butter
- 1 ¼ cups white or yellow cornmeal* + 1 tablespoon for the bottom of the pan
- ¾ cup all-purpose unbleached flour
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper-plus more to top batter just before baking
- 4 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 tablespoons minced onion
- Softened salted butter for serving
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F and place rack at center.
- In a large measuring cup, beat together the eggs, milk, and oil. Set aside.
- In a medium bowl, mix together the cornmeal, flour, sugar, salt, pepper, and baking powder.
- Pour the milk mixture into the bowl with the cornmeal mixture and stir until just combined. Stir in onion.
- Place a 9-inch cast iron skillet on a burner and heat over medium flame for two minutes. Drizzle in the extra tablespoon of oil and let heat a minute. Swirl the pan or use a brush to make sure the oil covers the bottom and even up the sides a bit. Sprinkle the extra tablespoon of cornmeal evenly over the oiled pan. Heat until cornmeal shows just a little color—pale golden.
- Pour the mixed cornbread batter into the hot pan, grate some pepper on top (4-6 grates) and give it two minutes or so to heat. A small bubble or two may appear at edges, and then it’s time to put the pan in the oven. Bake 15-20 minutes until quite brown around the edges and lightly golden on top. Remove from the oven, cut and serve hot, warm, at room temperature, or cold with butter. (Don’t forget grilling the leftovers, too.)
GOOD STUFF TO KNOW:
If buying beans in bulk and in large quantities suits you, try wholesalers, local restaurant suppliers, or farms that may ship directly. More bean information than you might ever need is here on the US Dry Bean site. If you want to have 25 pounds of beans shipped to you — perfectly possible — you might ask friends or neighbors to share.
Life goes on. Cooking in my kitchen the other day, I glanced out the front windows to see thousands? of bees flying through our yard, into the street, and up in a neighbor’s tree. I texted her to stay indoors and told her why. Early the next morning, a bee keeper came to gather them and take them home. Evidently this is a common happening when a new queen arrives; the old queen and her entourage get their
walking flying papers. Beautifully noisy and maybe a bit scary, but not very!