Personally, I was late to the R&B party — the rice-and-beans party, that is. I’m not sure when I first discovered the pleasure of this simple combination, but I’ve put away mountains of it in recent years — originally because my children would eat it with no fuss, and now because it’s such a versatile base for whatever else I feel like having.
In fact, there are many reasons to love this dish:
So what’s not to appreciate? Plenty, it turns out. If you’re not careful, as Culinate columnist Kelly Myers advises, R&B can be downright punitive — or at least an unappetizing bowl of starch. Which is a shame, because with just a little attention, a plate of rice and beans can be as satisfying to eat as just about anything.
I’ve eaten many bowls of basmati rice and black beans tossed with cilantro, salsa, and Monterey Jack; that was, more or less, my gateway blend. Lately though, I’ve turned that combo on its head with white beans and black rice (or, most recently, fresh shell beans with Bhutanese red rice and braised greens).
Looking for further inspiration, I asked a virtual kitchen full of food people how they eat the humble, timeless R&B.
Ann Cooper, the self-described “renegade lunch lady” who heads the school-lunch program in Berkeley, California, takes a traditional approach: Baked beans from Rancho Gordo and brown rice from Massa Organics (“the only rice we use in my school district and it’s delicious,” she says).
“I bake my beans in a Colombian earthenware bean pot — never soak them — and cook them with onions, herbs from the garden, and some organic nitrate-and-nitrite-free pork product. After they’re done, I serve them with the brown rice — perhaps a bit more fresh herbs, and some leafy cooked greens like kale.”
Cynthia Lair, whose cookbook Feeding the Whole Family is, in her words, “basically ALL about grain-and-bean combos,” shakes the same combination up a bit. “I think beans taste sexiest when they are pressure-cooked,” she says. “Whatever seasonings you use (chipotle chiles, curry spices, garlic and herbs) seem to go deep into the bean. Plus you get a soft, easily digestible texture.
“I also feel that people underestimate brown rice and relegate it to hippie food. If you sauté the rice in a little ghee, cardamom, and turmeric before adding water and salt to simmer, you end up with a fragrant, golden, separate rice that is gorgeous next to any bean or vegetable (especially those dark leafy ones).”
Food writer Leslie Cole, of The Oregonian, mixes things up with lentils, but keeps it simple: “Thick lentil soup (brown lentils, onion and carrot, canned diced tomatoes, lots of thyme, 1/2 cup of white wine), served in a deep bowl over a scoop of brown basmati rice.”
Cookbook author Eric Gower also relied on lentils in his student days (“I LIVED on this for about two years, and somehow didn’t get sick of it”): “Cook together brown rice and lentils. I just do the ‘finger trick’ — pour the rice and lentils (not quite half/half ratio, more like 1/3 lentils, 2/3 rice) into a pot, rinse, and fill up with water roughly one inch above the level of the rice.
The best way to do that is to poke your index finger into the water so that the very tip, the fingernail, touches the rice; the water level should come up to the first ‘line,’ or joint, of the index finger; this will always be the correct amount of water, no matter the shape of the pot, so no measuring is necessary.
“Once they’re cooked, let them cool off a bit. Then melt butter or ghee into a large skillet, and liberally sprinkle on some freshly toasted and ground coriander and cumin seeds. It will become very fragrant. Add to the pan a few big scoops of the cooked rice/lentil mixture, add plenty of salt and pepper, and gently sauté for a few minutes, until all the flavors are incorporated. While it sautés, heat up a few tortillas; I do mine directly on the gas burner next to the sautéing rice. When the tortillas start to blacken a bit, stuff them with the fragrant rice/lentil mixture, and, optionally, add a few slices of avocado. Adjust for salt, and inhale. Total cost is probably under a quarter without the avocado, a little more with.”
James Beard-award-winning chef Vitaly Paley (author of the new The Paley’s Place Cookbook) makes this: “French black lentils and basmati rice with stir-fried vegetables and fresh herbs like mint, parsley, and cilantro. I have done it in the past as a side dish to some grilled fish.”
Says blogger extraordinaire and cookbook author Heidi Swanson, “There is a Middle Eastern rice-and-lentil salad I love that combines rice and lentils with deeply caramelized onions. It’s called mujadara (I think there are alternative spellings for it), and I started picking it up on occasion at Bi-Rite Market here in San Francisco a few years back. Now I make variations of it here at home using whatever grain I have already cooked — quinoa, barley, brown rice — typically a medium-size grain. I always throw in some sort of chopped lightly cooked greens as well. And I eat it with a dollop of thick Greek yogurt that I’ve salted a bit.”
Vegetarian cookbook author Mollie Katzen loves rice and beans, but also mixes it up: “I like to make a dal of yellow split peas or red lentils (both end up a gorgeous golden color), seasoning them with cumin seeds, ground coriander, mustard seeds, garlic, cinnamon, chile, and lemon and serve it next to, or on top of, brown basmati rice mixed with sautéed onion, ginger, garlic, fennel seeds, orange or lemon zest, raisins, and toasted nuts (almonds and/or cashews). I serve it topped with a cucumber-mint-cilantro raita, and it’s a complete meal. Great for winter!”
Writes Bonnie Powell of The Ethicurean: “My husband has not quite gotten over his Atkins Diet days and so turns up his nose at rice and beans for dinner. I’m going to start working on him again about it as part of our recession budgeting. However, I do already eat a fair amount of rice and legumes — I like to start my day with some of both in the form of a big bowl of homemade porridge. I must give credit for this recipe to my friend Rachel Cole, a food and well-being guru who has written a multi-page “porridge manifesto” about the myriad yummy, healthy combinations for this breakfast of true champions.”
Cookbook author (Veganomicon) Isa Chandra Moskowitz eats beans and rice all the time: “It’s usually not an elaborate to-do. I have a million ways to make it depending on the beans I’ve soaked that week, the time of the year, and the amount of time I’ve got, but I’ll share my basic and favorite down and dirty, the-cupboard-is-bare combination: I crush some coriander seeds and sauté them up with finely chopped onions and a little garlic. I deglaze with a cheapo white wine and add a small tin of tomato sauce, then add my beans — usually pinto — and gently heat. Sometimes I’ll add some sliced mushrooms if I’ve got them. But coriander seeds are the secret here; they can make even the most middle-of-winter dish taste fresh and fragrant. To up the fragrance even more, I usually serve with some brown basmati rice.”
Culinate columnist Matthew Amster-Burton, whose book Hungry Monkey will be out next spring, likes “fried rice with edamame (frozen, shelled are fine) and bits of char siu or lap cheong” (aka Chinese barbecued pork and Chinese sausage).
Diane Morgan, author of the handy holiday how-to books The Thanksgiving Table and The Christmas Table, says, “I’ve been really enjoying quinoa. Though I haven’t put them together, I could see adding black beans and creating a “multi-ethnic” tabouli. I could see using cilantro instead of parsley or a combo for balance.”
Blogger Kris Swensson of Cheap Healthy Good blogged about Black Bean and Tomato Quinoa, one of her favorite ways to eat R&B, on Serious Eats. (It’s an Epicurious recipe, originally published in Gourmet.) Says Swensson: “It’s nutty and limey and just . . . it’s making me want some just typing about it, and I already ate dinner. So good.”
“I adore rice and beans. I love soft pinto beans over (not so healthy, I know) white rice with lots of grated soft cheese on top. Ummmm. Maybe some chopped scallions, too, and a slug of hot sauce if I haven’t cooked the beans with smoked paprika.
I also like my version of Red Beans and Rice from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. And of course, black beans and rice. Beans and rice are always good, and so are other legumes, like lentils and rice (with browned sautéed onions on top).”
Or maybe I should say, “Of course Michael Pollan eats rice and beans.” He says he uses no particular recipe, but adds, “I grow epazote in my garden and always throw in a few leaves.”
Farmer Anthony Boutard eats rice and beans in many different guises: “A regular for us is Cuban black-bean soup. The other two bean dishes we prepare do not use rice, but are really delicious. Jota is a soup from Trieste using borlotti beans, along with uncured pork jowl, sauerkraut, potatoes, cornmeal, and a bit of cumin. Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking has the recipe we use. When we have the Zolfino or Bianchetto beans available, we make white-bean soup, which is nothing more than white beans cooked slowly with some thyme, sage or rosemary, a carrot, and onion. The vegetables and herbs are removed after cooking, and the soup is dressed with some olive oil and a splash of vinegar or lemon juice.”
Physician and author Daphne Miller (The Jungle Effect) likes her beans — a lot: “Ahhh. Beans . . . A favorite dish. I love black beans à la Tarahumaran: black, kidney, or scarlet runner beans sautéed with onions, a teaspoon of lard, some chipotle, and a sprinkle of cumin. Scoop these onto a handmade tortilla and top with a little avocado and queso blanco — heaven.”
Bryant Terry, co-author of Grub, is working on a new cookbook: Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy, and Creative African-American Cuisine. He sent a recipe for Creole Hoppin’ Jean, his version of Hoppin’ John, with this intro: “Although Hoppin’ John is mainly associated with the Carolinas, the dish is eaten throughout the South, especially on New Year’s Day when it is thought to bring the eater good luck. After I returned to New Orleans from a semester abroad in France, Hoppin’ John was one of the first meals that I had. Here, I reinterpret the dish adding tomatoes and a New Orleans-inspired spice blend, giving a nod to the “Afro-Euro-Creole flavors that curry favor” in Louisiana Creole cuisine, as Mike Molina would say. With all the post-Katrina politricks taking place in New Orleans, the city needs all the good luck it can get.”
“Rice and beans is one of those nearly universal foods — you can find variants on it in almost any cuisine,” says chef Kurt Michael Friese, author of A Cook’s Journey. “It was that revelation that caused me to begin mixing styles and methods — coming up with curried chickpeas over brown rice, Jacob's Cattle beans over real Minnesota Manoomin, or recently, kidney beans with sage over barley.
“The method is pretty universal as well. Barley takes a while to cook, but it’s the same method as rice (2:1 stock to grain, a dash of butter or oil if you like, bring the liquid to a boil, add grain and seasonings, simmer ‘til all is absorbed), and is extremely nutritious. We chose kidney beans just because they’re my wife’s favorite, and after soaking the beans for 24 hours, simmered them in vegetable stock, just a pinch of salt, and the last of our sage leaves from the garden.
“We also throw in a bouquet garni to round out the flavor: a leek leaf wrapped around sprigs of thyme and parsley, a couple of peppercorns, a bay leaf, and a garlic clove, tied up with string. This contributes flavor but is easy to remove before service. This made the perfect supper on the first night that dropped below freezing here in the heartland. Warms the bones.”
Nutrition expert Marion Nestle is a big fan of R&B: “The wonderful thing about rice and beans is that everything goes with this dish. I like adding red onions along with some colorful vegetable, just to give it even more balance and flavor: red, green, and yellow peppers, spinach, or carrots work well.”
Kim O’Donnel, who blogs for the Washington Post, is also an R&B diehard: “I could live on black beans and rice. I’ll take my frijoles any old way — canned, dried, or fresh (a recent discovery at a Seattle farm market!). Diced mango is one of my all-time favorite black bean add-ons — a killer combo with grilled chicken. Eggs are probably my next favorite black-bean companion — and instead of rice, I use corn tortillas. Scallions, salsa, maybe a wee bit of queso, and I’m in heaven. For more of a soup, I like to season the beans with one diced chipotle chile in adobo sauce, with half a chopped onion. Fresh oregano leaves are nice but not urgent.
“Ah yes, the black-bean quesadilla — my answer to ‘There’s nothing in the fridge.’ In fact, I made one last Saturday night while watching Season 2 of ‘Dexter’ on DVD. I added a handful of lacinato kale pulled off the stems, some leftover caramelized onions, and a smidge of super-sharp Cheddar. The beans were canned, and I allowed them to reduce a bit so they wouldn’t leak out of the quesadilla. Dipped my wedges into some carrot-y hot sauce I brought back from Costa Rica.”
How do you like your rice and beans? Please tell us in the comments.
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