EAT YOUR BEANS
Beans are one of the most nutrient-dense sources of plant protein, not to mention cheap. Celebrate this delicious and easy-to-prepare food by trying a new recipe (National Bean Day on Jan. 6 provides the perfect occasion). Starting with dried beans creates texture and flavor that's far superior to the canned variety. If the recipe calls for cooked beans, soak the beans in plenty of water for four to 12 hours, then cook in a pressure cooker for a few minutes or simmer in a pot until tender (two to six hours depending on the variety). Add salt when cooking is complete so the beans don't toughen up, then use in one of these dishes.
A dependable refried bean recipe belongs in every home cook's repertoire. Using canned beans is fine in a pinch, but choose the brand with the fewest additives (including salt). A good basic recipe for refried beans calls for 2 cups cooked beans, 1 tablespoon oil, and half an onion. Chop the onion and sauté over medium heat. Adding chili peppers and/or smoked paprika is optional to kick up the spice. When the onion starts to take on color, add the beans. Gently mash and season with salt. This is an excellent side dish or filling for tacos or burritos.
FRIJOLES DE OLLA
Frijoles de olla, or "beans from the pot," is a type of Mexican comfort food that's heartwarming in its simplicity. Start with 3 cups presoaked beans in a large pot and fill with water to cover by 2 inches. Add one-half peeled onion, two dried chiles (such as ancho or chipotle), and a few sprigs of a traditional Mexican herb called epazote (cilantro is fine as a substitute). Cover and cook for five to eight hours over low heat, stirring occasionally, adding more liquid as necessary. The beans should be soft and the amount of broth is subjective -- some like this dish very soupy while others prefer the beans almost melted. Season with salt once the beans are fully cooked. Use as a side or the base of a meal with toppings such as avocado, fried egg, pickled jalapeños, shredded lettuce, and crumbled cheese.
Burritos take minutes to make, can be filled with low-cost ingredients, and make a fun eat-with-your-hands meal with family and friends. It doesn't get much cheaper than bean burritos, and using homemade refried beans ensures full flavor even without extra fillings. Layer one-quarter cup refried beans, one-quarter cup cooked rice, a small handful of shredded lettuce, and a few slices of tomato in the center of a warm 10-inch flour tortilla. Wrap tightly and serve with salsa. Kick it up a notch by adding chopped chiles, cheese, or avocado.
WHITE BEAN SPREAD
This Provençal-flavored spread is versatile -- an ideal sandwich filling for a quick and healthy lunch, spread on toast with a drizzle of olive oil to accompany wine, or as a dip for crudités. Use an immersion blender to blend 2 cups cooked white beans, 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, 2 teaspoons herbs de Provence, 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, one-half teaspoon sea salt, and one-half teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Stir in 1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest to perk up the citrus flavor. Let rest in the refrigerator so the flavors can meld, reaching a peak after one to three days.
This layered casserole is a one-dish meal that delivers favorite Mexican flavors in each forkful. It's also a thrifty way to finish off leftovers. Coat the bottom of an 8-inch-square pan with 1 tablespoon red or green salsa, then lay down corn tortillas (rip as necessary to form a nice even layer). Cover with more salsa and a layer of beans (roughly one-half cup frijoles de olla or refried beans). The next layer can be sautéed meat or vegetables -- even a frozen vegetable medley straight from the bag -- followed by an optional layer of cheese. Cover with tortillas and go through the layering process two more times, topping the final tortilla layer with salsa and (optional) cheese. Bake, covered, at 350 for 40 minutes. Remove the cover and bake another 10 to 20 minutes until the top is nicely browned. Let cool before slicing and serve with a fresh salad and extra salsa.
PASTA E FAGIOLI
Leave it to the Italians to concoct a crave-worthy dish from such humble and inexpensive ingredients as pasta and beans. Simmer equal parts cooked pasta (such as elbow macaroni) and cooked white beans in twice as much tomato sauce seasoned with chopped garlic, a mixture of herbs (basil, parsley, and oregano), olive oil, and salt and pepper. Topped with Parmesan cheese and served with a side of crusty bread and a glass of wine, this is a perfect example of peasant food fit for a queen.
THREE BEAN SALAD
This no-fuss recipe calls for a combination of fresh and dried beans in equal measure, such as 1 cup each of cooked kidney beans, cooked black-eyed peas, and raw yellow wax or green beans cut into bite-size pieces. Add one-half cup chopped onion and a few sprigs chopped curly parsley. Dress with 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, the juice of one-half lemon, salt, and freshly ground black pepper. Serve as a side dish or on a bed of lettuce with toast and a few ounces of cheese for a flavorful meal.
TUSCAN WHITE BEAN SOUP
This comforting and hearty dish is somewhere between a soup and a stew. Add cooked white beans to a broth seasoned with Italian herbs, such as parsley and oregano, along with wilted kale and large garlic croutons or crostini -- all topped with black pepper and grated Parmesan cheese. The bread soaks up the flavorful broth while adding texture to each bite. For an easy and tasty brunch dish, or for extra protein, top the soup with a poached or fried egg.
LAYERED BEAN DIP
The ultimate party and potluck go-to, layered bean dip is vegetarian friendly, fun, and impressive without requiring much money or time. There's plenty of opportunity for creativity with the layers, adding or subtracting whatever is on hand. Start with the traditional foundation: roughly 4 cups of refried or de olla beans on the bottom of an 8-by-13-inch pan. Next, a layer of salsa, preferably homemade; a layer of sautéed onions and a healthy smattering of (optional) chiles; and a layer of shredded lettuce and chopped fresh tomatoes. Top with sliced avocado or dollops of guacamole and serve with warm tortillas or tortilla chips. The basic recipe is vegan, but a layer of cheese layer or a dollop of sour cream on top is a tasty addition.
A staple of Egyptian cuisine, ful medames is thick and creamy fava beans all dressed up. It's delicious spread on toast, as a sandwich filling, with eggs for a traditional Egyptian breakfast, or on its own as a hearty and healthy snack. Simple to prepare, a recipe for ful from Epicurious calls for pantry staples such as olive oil, lemon, parsley, and garlic and patient simmering.
BLACK BEAN SOUP
This is another classic that's easy to master and easy to customize with creative twists. A few basic flavorings (onion and garlic) and a blend of spices such as cumin, bay leaf, and oregano transform regular black beans into a flavorful soup with a recipe from the blog Make Real Food. Enjoy on its own or as a canvas for toppings such as avocado, fresh herbs, or tangy fermented slaw.
A southwest favorite, chili is a filling dish that's welcome at many tables in the midst of winter chill. Most basic chili recipes call for canned beans, which suffice if you opt not to cook your own. Combined with tomatoes, onion, and spices (chili powder, garlic, smoky cumin, and paprika) and simmered in a slow cooker, bean chili is a cheap, no-mess meal for a crowd. Serve with toppings such as sour cream, shredded jack cheese, chili peppers, and tortilla chips, and perhaps homemade cornbread.
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