Say you find yourself at a point in your life when you are on quite a strict budget because you don’t know when the next paycheck might roll in – like if you are a freelancer or a seasonal employee with the end of the season in sight. Eating out becomes out of the question, especially here in the valley, and even a big trip to the grocery store can be a sizable hit to your meager earnings.
But the thing is, saying, “I have no food at home,” is like every teenager with overflowing dresser drawers saying they have nothing to wear. There is food at home, and we all know it. It just happens to be the uninspiring back-of-the-cabinet kind of food and wilting-in-the-fridge kind of produce. Well, turn that can upside down and get the dust off of it! We are putting it to use.
To begin my eat-the-food-you’re-with series, let’s focus on the bean. I think I may have literally moved the same black beans to multiple apartments over the last few years. They always seem like a wise and cheap choice at the store: “I’ll have taco bar party this week!” I say to myself, only to come home and add the can next to a half dozen more just like it. Maybe there’s pinto or some other varieties mixed in there too.
The taco night never happens, and the beans get packed into the moving box six months later and put together to waste out their days on the next shelf. It’s a sad story with a happy ending, because now you have this wonderful source of protein that is ready to become a full meal without you spending a cent. And, if you divide the cost of the can over the number of days you’ve owned it, basically the beans owe you money.
You could start with a bean classic: vegetarian chili. Fire up that slow cooker and place your pile of beans inside. Add a can of broth – we all know that’s been sitting in the back of the cabinet, too (more on that later) – and the spices that you keep on hand but never use. Some red chili powder, onion flakes, garlic salt, oregano – throw it all in there! Grab that hidden tomato paste from the back shadows and can-opener that baby to life too.
No, the ingredients are not fresh, but they are free, and that’s where we are going with this. As the dish warms up, the flavors will combine, and you will be perfectly satisfied and likely have leftovers. More on that coming up, too.
One other way I really like using beans is for a morning one-pan breakfast that I want to call a cassoulet but I guess really isn’t. Put some oil or a little butter into a skillet, drain your beans, or used refried, and add to the pan, placing it on low. I have oftentimes also thrown in dried chili peppers, which I think are beautiful but never really use until it’s cheap dinner night. Crack one open and put the whole thing into the pan, the moisture from the dish will revive it, and the spice will be the flavor you need to get the morning going.
Other back-of-the-fridge finds are good, too. If you have half an onion laying around, chop that up and throw it in. Got a couple of pinches of shredded cheese remaining in the bag? Throw that in, too.
Now comes the fun part. As the dish thickens, use a spoon to make three bare pockets in the pan and crack an egg into each pocket. Add a lid to retain the rest of the dish’s moisture, and create a perfect basted egg. Wait until all the whites are cooked, and then cook yolks to your personal preference and patience level. If you have tortillas laying around toast those quickly for a delicious breakfast burrito, but the dish also stands on its own.
Spatula out a section of the breakfast cassoulet onto a plate, and there you are, using those back-of-the-shelf ingredients in a smart and delicious way that will remind you of the days you used to spend money on brunch, and motivate you to get there again someday, or at least to the point where you can splurge for an avocado on top.