At some point nearly every blog on frugality has a post on beans. Usually bean cooking is presented as one of the miserable things you have to do as the cost of being frugal. Often one sees comments like “I’d eat beans before I’d give up … whatever. “ And doesn’t the famous Dave Ramsay, who tells you to attack your debt with “gazelle-like intensity,” advocate beans and rice…not because you want to, but because you have to, as penance for whatever debt you racked up.
Myself, I love beans. I did not eat them (with the exception of the occasional canned beans with hotdog dinner) till, besotted with Mr. Dr. Frugal Scholar, I set out to learn to make the bean burritos he ate at Mijares, the Mexican restaurant of his California boyhood. This was in the mid-70s, before salsa was in every grocery. Yumyum: they were good! And, as an added bonus, they were unbelievably cheap (beans were about 50 cents a pound); we were poor graduate students at the time, living on a $3,000/year stipend (for teaching!), half of which went to rent.
I now think of beans with an aesthetic reverence (is there such a thing?). Almost all the cuisines of poor countries focus on wresting flavor out of the plainest and cheapest ingredients: think of Mexican, Indian, and African cooking.
One of my favorite bean recipes is MEGADARRA, which I first encountered in Claudia Roden’s masterpiece “A Book of Middle Eastern Food.”
Here is what she says:
“Here is a modern version of a medieval dish called mujadarra, described by al-Baghadi as a dish of the poor, and still known today as Esau’s favorite. In fact, it is such a great favorite that although said to be for misers, it is a compliment to serve it.”
“An aunt of mine used to present it regularly to guests with the comment: “Excuse the food of the poor!”—to which the unanimous reply always was: “Keep your food of kings and give us megadarra every day!”
The dish consists of lentils cooked with rice topped with caramelized onions. Serve with yogurt.
I had the book for years before I made this. It sounded so plain. Then I tried it: WOW!
This is the recipe as adapted from Deborah Madison’s “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.” Her version is easier (if that’s possible) than Roden’s. Madison calls this “one of best dishes there is.”
Slowly cook 1 large sliced onion in lots of (6 TBS) olive oil till golden. (Tip: mix olive oil with regular vegetable oil for frugality and to increase the burning point).
Meanwhile, cook 1 ¼ cups lentils in quart of water for about 15 minutes. Add ¾ cup rice. Cover and cook another 15 minutes or so. Add salt. Check the water and add some if necessary. Make sure you stir that onion.
Stir onion into lentil/rice mix when done.
Top with yogurt.
As you serve to your family, proclaim “Excuse the food of the poor.”
P.S. If you are out of yogurt, it's still good. It's the onion that makes the dish.