Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Where Frugality and Nutrition Collide: Beans

Karl once told me about a clash of food philosophy he once had with his home economics teacher in high school. His teacher had been talking about living within your means by sticking to a budget. When it came to food, she said, it was best to eat average, moderately priced food all month long, always having enough as well as variety, rather than to blow the majority of your monthly budget on one grand meal then scraping by with meager monotony the rest of the month.

Karl is of the opinion that eating frugally most of one month is a small price to pay for having one extravagant, luxurious, and delectably pricey meal. The contrast makes him appreciate the good stuff all the more!

I think I agree with him, in theory. In practice, however, I have difficulty eating the same thing over and over, even with the promise that, every 30 days or so, my bored taste buds will experience sensory overload in a culinary Las Vegas.

Now that Karl really is operating on a budget, he has put his philosophy into practice. He received a 5-qt Rival Slow Cooker for Christmas and has made good use of it.

For example, for the past two weeks, he has been eating almost nothing but rice and beans for lunches and dinners. He didn't calculate the cost of those meals, but he has just whipped up a fresh five quarts of bean-veggie stew that will feed him, presumably for another 2 weeks, along with rice, for the stunningly low cost of about $12 (see below for a recipe and a breakdown). To mix it up for a bit of variety, he adds various hot sauces (Sriracha is the current favorite) and spices.

As if the cost alone weren't enough to drive you to a diet of rice and beans, think of the nutrition side! Karl's stew contains no added sodium, or even spices. There is no oil, and it is vegetable- and protein-rich. As long as he drinks some milk and eats some fruit every day (an apple a day with lunch, milk with his raisin bran in the morning), Karl is eating ridiculously well-balanced meals for about $0.50 each.

This is all well and good. I know I should be jumping on the rice and beans boat, but I just love having variety in my diet. At some point (probably two days into the two week marathon of beans), I would be craving something else, and the sight of a bowl of beans would make me feel ill. This is probably a purely psychological issue that I can, and should, overcome, in the interests of saving money and actually eating better as a result. I guess I'm just not ready.

In the meantime, I do enjoy a bowl of Karl's delicious stew every once in a while. But I'd rather eat a Swad Microwave Curry with my rice (paneer a must!) one day, and a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich the next. Variety, for me, seems to be a little more indispensable than for Karl.

Karl's "Budget Bean Stew"
1 32-oz bag of dried mixed beans (15-bean mix) (follow soaking instructions on bag)
1 16-oz bag of dried lentils
1 medium onion, chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
1 yam, cubed
1 medium parsnip, chopped
1 8-oz can tomato sauce
3 or 4 packets Trader Joe's low-sodium vegetable broth concentrate (or low-sodium bouillon cubes)
2 or 3 cups shredded cabbage
3 or 4 cups water

Put all ingredients, except water, into a 5-qt slow cooker. If you have a smaller slow cooker, you'll probably want to pare down the amounts or your slow cooker will be overflowing.
Once you have all the ingredients in, pour water in until you can see it approaching the rim. Set your slow cooker to low, and cook for 8-12 hours. You really can't over-cook this.

Enjoy with rice, or just as a stew!