Beans and Rice and Beans and Rice and Beans and….

Sharon July 15th, 2008

In my last post I talked about the fact that the diets common in the rich world *appear* to be very diverse, and that diversity, and the idea of constant “choice” are something we emphasize a lot.  Eating out of food storage, and eating cheaply both seem to constrict our choices dramatically - and thus we may feel deprived.

 Now the truth is that as Michael Pollan showed so well in _The Omnivore’s Dilemma_ the classic American diet isn’t diverse at all - it is almost all corn based.  Corn is as central to our diet as it was to any Native population - the difference is that the corn is processed into corn syrup, Confinement meat, alcohol and other crap that isn’t good for us.  We really haven’t changed anything - we’re eating corn 3 times a day, just like our ancestors, but we’re eating the worst possible form of corn for us and the planet.  It would not be a loss of diversity to go back to eating corn or some other staple grain more often - and it would be a gain for the planet.

But that doesn’t change the fact that we’re used to the idea of eating a varied diet, and eating a lot of staple foods doesn’t necessarily line up with our mental image of what we or our families should be eating.  In fact, it is pretty much precisely what we should be eating - we’ve seen this several times.  There’s the Western Diet Paradox, in which immigrants from cultures with staple style diets made up of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes and small amounts of meat become less healthy and have shortened lifespans when they move to the US, and start eating a typical American diet.  Or there’s the research from WWII, which showed that the British got healthier during periods of restriction in which they were eating more grains, and fewer meats, fats and sweets. 

But the stigma of “poor people’s food” of reduced “choice” (which often isn’t any kind of meaningful choice) is huge, and we’ve got to overcome it.  That means making the staple diet a badge of honor, talking about it, enjoying it, and integrating it into the culture as a source of pleasure.  The thing is, food trends are fairly easy to start and move - and they can be really powerful.  All of us have the potential to change the culture’s relationship with inexpensive, basic staple foods, simply by cooking them well, eating them enthusiastically, serving them to guests.  The words you want to hear are “I never knew lentil soup/beans and rice/whatever could be so delicious.”

And that means learning to cook inexpensive foods well, and to create a varied diet using basic ingredients.  Which means you need recipes and ideas. 

Which brings me to the point - first, here’s my own stuff:

There are some ideas for meal planning here at my friend Pat’s blog:,

Not so much a rice and beans thing, Hillbilly Housewife has some recipes for very low cost family menus - $70 for a week (although some prices have risen since then).  There are also links to even cheaper ones, but from an older period. There are some foods I simply don’t recommend - margarine, for example, but the price qualities are good, and they are “typical American” but cheap, which is nice and accessible to a lot of people:  She also includes a schedule, which is great.  Hers is a great site, btw - particularly for those who are new to frugal food.

There are a gazillion bean recipes on this site: , and tons of ethnic bean and grain recipes here: 

For cookbooks, here are a few of my favorites - some of which I’ve mentioned before on the blog, and some of which I haven’t.

 1. The More With Less Cookbook (and its several sequels) by Doris Janzen Longacre has a lot of simple, staple food recipes that are wonderful and delicious - if I had to choose only a couple of basic cookbooks, this one and its sequels (including the wonderful children’s cookbook, Simply in Season (there’s an adult one of the same name) would be the start of a library.  We eat their Apple-Cinnamon Crunch as a snack regularly, or mix it into yogurt, and it was where I got the idea of serving not-too-sweet rice pudding for breakfast.

2. Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman’s _Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook_ is really a cookbook of the whole former Soviet Union.  And while it has plenty of meat recipes, it emphasizes the staple foods of Eastern Europe - lots of roots, whole grains and very simple, inexpensive foods.  The recipes are delicious as well.  I lived on cabbage pie (which is really bad for you but spectacularly delicious), lentil and dried apricot soup, and pumpkin fritters in college, and they are still part of our regular food rotation.  Great borscht, too.

3. Down to Earth: Great Recipes for Root Vegetables by Georgeanne Brennan - Brennan is one of my absolute favorite food writers (among other things, she’s the author of my son’s favorite cookbook, The Dr. Seuss Cookbook).  Rutabaga and barley soup, deep dish turnip gratin, green onion and gruyere bread pudding and salsify fritters are all favorites of my family.

 4. Paula Wolfert’s book _Mediterranean Grains and Greens_ is one of my favorite all-time cookbooks.  It was from her I learned the easy way of making polenta without all the stirring (it works on American style mush as well).  Eric and I eat pasta with bitter greens and tomatoes all summer long, particularly as the greens start to bolt, and my favorite bean and grain soup ever is her Greek-style medly of lentils, herbs and grains.  Spiced barley bread is also one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, especially dipped in Harira.

5. Lane Morgan is the author of _The Winter Harvest Cookbook_ which I discovered through Carla Emery.  The emphasis is on foods available in the Pacific NW in the winter, which means, roots, beans and greens.  Very nice recipes - how many other cookbooks have more than a dozen parsnip recipes, or seven for daikons?  My kids love her teriyaki beets (me too)  and we like her broccoli dal as well.

6. Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s _Seductions of Rice_ cookbook is fascinating and wonderful.  It explores authentic rice recipes (and foods served over rice) from all over the world - their “Flatbreads and Flavors” did the same for wheat and flat breads of other sorts.  The risotto al birra, which sounds weird (risotto with beer) is spectacular.  We eat beef and lettuce congee anytime we can get it, and we make khao ped (Thai fried rice) all the time.  Yum.

7.  All the Moosewood Cookbooks are good, of course, but for diversity of staple food recipes _Sundays at the Moosewood_ which focuses on their Sunday ethnic days, is probably the best.  Some of the sections are better than others - the sections on Japan and Finland are good, others not quite as much.  And generally, IMHO, the recipes need more seasoning.  But they are still good.  We make their sweet potato paratha quite often, and the tomato, lime and tortilla soup is a summer staple. 

8. Crescent Dragonwagon’s _Soup and Bread Cookbook_ is one I’ve mentioned before, but it has the remarkable utility of offering ways to make just about everything (I mean everything - she has a section on nut soups!)  into soup.  The recipes are great - flavorful and accessible, and she’s a fun writer.  I have no southern credentials at all, but I like her Green Gumbo a lot, and the Broccoli and Potato Curry soup is a winter staple here, as is her Split Pea Soup with Caraway. 

9. I think I’ve praised Eileen Yin-Fei Lo’s _From the Earth: Chinese Vegetarian Cooking_ before, but I’m going to do it again, because it is so damned good.  I’ve never made a bad recipe from this cookbook.  The sizzling rice soup is incredible, and the many congee recipes (did I mention congee before - we love the stuff!) are wonderful.  Lima beans with soybean cake sounds beyond weird and is terrific, and lemon noodles with mushrooms are spectacular!  I don’t think I can say enough good things about this cookbook.

10. Finally, _Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations_ by Lois Ellen Frank has a fair share of foofy recipes for people with lots of money, but also a ton of great recipes for staple foods, southwestern style.  The posole is great even without the meat, and in the fall, we eat sunflower cakes as a snack or as a breakfast.  I wish I lived where I could try the recipe for tumbleweed shoots with pinto beans and wild rice, but we make pumpkin corn soup often. 

11 Responses to “Beans and Rice and Beans and Rice and Beans and….”

  1. Ailsa Ekon 15 Jul 2023 at 1:26 pm

    How about Lord Krishna’s Cuisine by Yamuna Devi?

  2. Meadowlarkon 15 Jul 2023 at 1:43 pm

    Society does seem to tell us that beans/grains are “poor person food”. For me, they are “farm food”. We grew lentils and split peas and that’s what we ate. For many a meal.

    Leftovers seem to have the same stigma. I grew up eating spaghetti or bean soup for 3 days in a row and wasn’t bothered a bit. It wasn’t that we didn’t have food (we raised cattle, so there was certainly beef in the freezer) but that we ate simply and heartily.

    My husband (the city boy) does not like leftovers at all. But after 20+ years, I’ve nearly “fixed” him. :)

  3. homebrewlibrarianon 15 Jul 2023 at 3:06 pm

    While I love cookbooks and ones that take staples and make them delicious in particular, I haven’t yet run across any that take into account the foods that grow up in Alaska. Now Alaska has seen it’s fair share of locally written church, women’s groups, 4H, bank employees, hospital employees, etc. cookbooks but they all call for wheat flour and lots of tomatoes and peppers. Those things don’t grow here in any quantity, particularly wheat. What I really want to see is a cookbook that emphasizes amaranth, potatoes, rhubarb and fava beans. Okay, beets, carrots and turnips, too.

    I am heartened, however, by a recent publication by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium Cancer Program called _Traditional Food Guide for Alaska Native Cancer Survivors_. ANTHC is trying to help Alaska Native cancer survivors improve their health by going back to their traditional foods (yep, Alaska Natives are suffering from the Western Diet, too). It’s a small, spiral-bound book that is more of an overview of Alaska Native foods (with over 15 different cultural identifications that span the state, how could anyone address all foods?) but talks about modern and historic ways to prepare them and includes 30 recipes which take traditional foods and prepare them in modern (low-fat, low-cholesterol) ways. Absolutely my favorite part of the book is the two pages that describe moose and caribou parts. For instance:

    “Backbone - The meat is cooked or dried and is considered very high in quality. This is especially true for the anterior meat along the high shoulder vertebrae. The bones are not used, but the spinal cord is removed from the cooked vertebrae and eaten. The sinew is removed, dried and used for sewing. Back sinew is considered the best for sewing and making snares.”

    Now how cool is that? I did notice that there were several “staples” such as seal oil in the collection of Alaska Native reminisces about traditional foods. But what I really noticed was the seasonality of those staples. Seal oil could be around all year but some foods like sourdock were only available when it wasn’t frozen outside. And there’s always the different times that certain fish are around.

    Nevertheless, for what I’d want out of a cookbook it would require me to look through dozens of other cookbooks to find recipes that include wild and grown foods from Alaska. Guess I should start keeping a notebook as I do things but I sure wish somebody had beat me to it.

    Kerri in AK

  4. Squrrlon 15 Jul 2023 at 3:09 pm

    I second what Meadowlark says about leftovers. My husband, an engineer, takes leftovers for lunch nearly every day. His coworkers, who all go out to eat, are torn between thinking he’s a freak and recognizing that he’s saving a lot of money. (Also, eating better than them, but they wouldn’t know that except by the smell ;-)

    Speaking of my husband, he will not thank you for this post when I start pestering after every single book on it except the two I already have. Actually, I made a dish out of More With Less last night, and it is one of my top three or so cookbooks…and I have two bookcases full.

    We’ve been working on staple eating here, and we made a big step by buying a 50# bag of potatoes (for two people) a while ago. Since then, we’ve been eating potatoes nearly daily, but we never _feel_ like we’re eating a lot of potatoes…we’re just eating, you know, _food_. Which is the point.

  5. Paula Hewitton 15 Jul 2023 at 4:17 pm

    This is a great list of cookbooks, I own a couple. I particularly like the Brunswick stew in Moosewood - seems to be one of those reicpes that includes every summer veggie in the garden….we eat it a lot when everything is ready to harvest. I think Ive commented before -but we have been moving to a rice and beans, or rice and greens diet - and our kids think nothing of it. when it comes the time that we have something simple 6 times a week, instead of three, i dont think anyone in the family is going to notice. Wolferts book on grains and greens is great - i just wish I had to guts to work out which local weeds are edible….
    you make a good point about serving food to others to change the culture. when we have guests I still go down the expensive meat/ fancy cheese route - i havent been able to bring myself to dish up lentils and rice to guests (not unless its part of a more elaborate meal)- maybe i need to start!

  6. greentangleon 15 Jul 2023 at 4:36 pm

    For ultimate simplicity there’s Helen Nearing’s Simple Food for the Good Life, probably more fun for reading than recipes. As the cover of my copy reads: the funniest, crankiest, most ambivalent cookbook you’ll ever read.

  7. Meganon 15 Jul 2023 at 9:16 pm

    Here is my very favorite low-budget recipe for Koshari. Egyptian comfort food with lentils, rice, pasta and tomato-onion sauce. It’s only got 5 or 6 very cheap ingredients. I make it with shell pasta and I run the sauce in the blender after it’s cooked, it ends up bright orange. This is SO inexpensive and easy to make from stored things. And it is YUMMY. And filling.

  8. Tracion 15 Jul 2023 at 11:35 pm

    I posted earlier, it must be lost in space somewhere…

    My Sister and I grew up eating beans and corn tortillas with tomatoes, onion, lettuce and cheese EVERY NIGHT for most of our childhood. We ate whole grain toast with butter or eggs for every breakfast. We occasionally had seasonal things like artichokes. Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner were huge treats. We never questioned it until we grew up and looked back on it.

    I made a huge pot of Collards & Black-Eyed Pea Soup, we have been eating it for days.
    It is one of our favorites…

    6 cups stock or water
    2 cups black-eyed peas (rinsed)
    1 bunch of collard greens
    2 large onions, coarsely chopped
    3 ribs of celery, finely chopped
    4 large cloves garlic, finely minced
    1/2 tsp dried thyme
    pinch red pepper (more if you like heat)
    sea salt to taste

    Bring stock & peas to a boil. Meanwhile wash and prepare collards (chop into 1 inch strips) Add collards and everything else except the salt to the pot. Bring to a boil, simmer covered until peas are tender about 45-55 minute. Salt to taste. Add more red peppers or hot sauce if desired.

    Vancouver, WA

  9. Meadowlarkon 16 Jul 2023 at 10:50 am

    American Wholefoods Cuisine. And I’m not even a vegetarian.

    The one I have in old (70s?) and full of whole grain recipes and menus.

  10. Kation 16 Jul 2023 at 11:20 pm

    I’m loving these last couple of articles, Sharon!!! Some great tidbits even when one isn’t yet feeling a tight crunch. I introduced my dad (with rave reviews, I might add) to Colcannon this spring. I’ve used dandilion greens in it without any great difference in flavor from the cabbage. (Well, ok, different from cabbage, which I prefer with the potatoes, but would taste just like turnip greens or collards if used instead of dandilions.) I’ve also dried a decent-sized jar of lambsquarters that I hope to add to the odd soup this fall and winter. Have more to dry as it continues to grow, as well.

    One question, I believe you mentioned a while back that the outter leaves of cabbage and broccoli are usable…. How would one go about harvesting and using those outter leaves???? The garden we have over at the inlaw’s house is producing a LOT of cabbage and broccoli (who’s heads have been subsequently harvested by rabbits), and the FIL is wondering if something can be done with the outter cabbage leaves and broccoli leaves to avoid otherwise wasting them. Any tips and suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

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