Rice and bean favorites

The ultimate budget meal

October 29, 2008

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:

  1. Usually, it’s fast and easy to prepare (especially if you have that awesome appliance, a rice cooker).
  2. Often it’s meatless, which helps if you are trying to scale back on the amount of meat you eat.
  3. It’s inexpensive, which is particularly nice just now.
  4. It makes great leftovers (see no. 3).
  5. And it’s simple: Dinner can be served in a single bowl, with a glass of zinfandel and candlelight if you wish.
rice and beans
R&B, two ways.

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.

Beans in the oven

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.”

Sex sells

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).”

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Lentils, please

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.”

Lentils to live on

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.

Dal is a fine way to eat lentils.

“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.”

Chefs like lentils

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.”

Lentil salad

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.”

No surprise here

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!”

Bonnie’s porridge, with two types of lentils and dates.

R&B for breakfast

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.”

The secret ingredient

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.”

Here’s betting his daughter loves this, too

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).

The quinoa quotient

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.”

Gourmet quinoa

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.”

Deborah Madison spills the beans

“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).”

Even Michael Pollan eats rice and beans

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.”

cranberry beans
Fresh shell beans.

Variety is the spice

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.”

Beans, no rice

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.”

Good-luck beans

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.”

wheat berry salad
Wheat berry and chickpea salad.

A chef’s dream dish

“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.”

Good and good for you

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.”

Every which way

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.

There are 30 comments on this item
Add a comment
1. by lucymn on Oct 29, 2008 at 1:58 PM PDT

Rice and beans is a nutritionally sound dish- a complex carbohydrate. I love Ayers Creek and Rancho Gordo dried beans! We love black-eye peas and mung beans dal. Last night I made a aromatic black-eye pea curry over basmati rice. A weekly dish in our house is from Madhur Jaffray’s World Vegetarian: Black eye peas with chard, lemon and olive oil over rice coated with the seasoned oil from browned onion, garlic and chili flakes.

2. by Ludmila Moreira on Oct 29, 2008 at 2:29 PM PDT

Rice and beans are the staple of brazilian gastronomy, so for me it’s really difficult to think of them as a “dish” rather than just “food”. In Brazil one should expect to see rice and beans in everybody’s dish every day, usually with some kind of meat and salad on the side. The rice is white and the beans are black, cooked the same way one would to make feijoada (minus the meats), that is, cooked in water and spices until there’s a thick brown sauce (which was my favorite part as a kid). I really enjoyed to see so many perspectives on how to change that up a little bit.

3. by Cind on Oct 29, 2008 at 5:36 PM PDT

I was in Nicaragua for 2 years with the Peace Corps. Just plain red beans boiled up and plain white rice in a bowl with fresh crema and hot tortillas, or a bit of queso blanco, as Dr. Miller prescribes, takes me right back. Then I am home sick. Leftover rice and beans are best fried up together in a wee bit of lard, and put on a hot tortilla. That is Gallo pinto!
Great piece. thanks to all.

4. by izzy's mama on Oct 29, 2008 at 6:36 PM PDT

After reading all of these inspirational dishes I am ashamed to admit that we eat just plain old black beans and white rice. Sometimes I add some greens for excitement..This is what it looks like:


I hope to try some of the variations here and get away from canned beans.

5. by Katie on Oct 30, 2008 at 6:18 PM PDT

Cooking lentils and rice in my rice cooker is a wintertime tradition: quick, easy, and substantive. There’s no better way to get through these cold months!

6. by Bavaria on Oct 31, 2008 at 12:15 AM PDT

a couple of good ol’ boys from the deep south fixed red beans and rice for me...their secret ingredient...Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning...yum! To make beans ‘fast food’, I cook a large batch in the crockpot and divide into small portions and freeze. Then dinner is just a quick saute of onion, garlic, and veg, and toss the beans in to warm through.

7. by Caroline Cummins on Oct 31, 2008 at 12:55 PM PDT

how to make everybody happy, even the allergic: hummus.

8. by anonymous on Nov 11, 2008 at 2:01 PM PST

I made arroz con gandules (rice and pigeon peas) for dinner last night and have eaten it for every meal since! This dish conbines nutty pigeon peas and tangy green olives with rice and savory spices for an all-day-every-day kind of dish. It’s essentially a Puerto Rican paella. Search recipezaar.com for “arroz con gandules” for this dee-lectable recipe.

9. by anonymous on Nov 11, 2008 at 2:03 PM PST

While you’re at recipezaar.com, search for another R&B hit: garbanzos guisado. It’s a thick stew of butternut squash, garbanzo beans, green olives and bacon/ham. Serve over white rice and give three cheers for Puerto Rico.

10. by Melanie Adley on Nov 25, 2008 at 5:47 PM PST

I just posted one variation of my staple rice and bean meal.

11. by nina on Dec 15, 2008 at 4:25 PM PST

what an amazingly awesome collection of recipes! thanks.

12. by riceoflife on Dec 19, 2008 at 11:58 AM PST

I love this collection of beans and rice dishes. It is perhaps my staple food, and I share many versions/ideas on my blog Rice of Life.

Here are some of my favorites:

Rajma - Indian kidney beans
*Mujadarrah - Lentils and rice with friend onions
*Pinto beans and rice

13. by Jeff Deasy on Jan 9, 2009 at 3:43 PM PST

I like the authentic New Orleans recipe I got from rom Chef Ann Rossi. She & I both worked stints at the Commander’s Palacein in the Big Easy’s Garden District. Here’s Chef Ann’s recipe:


Laissez Le Bon Temps Roulet!

14. by Crystal on Mar 5, 2009 at 4:27 PM PST

Quinoa Salads! Being gluten-free I fall back on the quinoa salad for lunch, dinner, and potlucks. Add small red beans, asparagus, lemon, cumin, and red pepper. Or go more “Asian” and use cilantro with red pepper and garlic and ginger. For a simple side try it with a few tablespoons of tahini and lemon juice.

15. by Julie Kadingo on Apr 27, 2009 at 12:41 PM PDT

I use beans to make vegetable soup a meal. While I like meat in soup, adding meat takes away the low fat appeal. A bean and vegetable soup becomes more complex with a little bit of sharp cheese grated over top.

16. by anonymous on Jun 1, 2009 at 5:23 PM PDT

Bean and brown rice soft tacos. This is comfort food for me and it’s incredibly economical and simple. It’s usually either canned or homemade pinto beans flavored with garlic and onion, brown rice, and either sour cream or smushed avocado, wrapped in warmed corn tortillas. If I’m in the mood for more complex flavor I’ll add salsa, cilantro, green onions, and cook the beans with cumin and oregano, but usually I go with the basic version.

17. by Anne Fresia on Jun 22, 2009 at 12:36 PM PDT

Black beans and rice with a spinach paneer for a nice and complete meal.

Lentils go with every kind of cooking- Indian, greek, Mexican, etc. and are fantastically cheap per serving.

18. by abcandm on Sep 23, 2009 at 5:38 PM PDT

With two vegetarian children in the house I usually put up a slow cooker pot of beans every week. We love black bean quesadillas and then use the beans to make soups, salads and bean burgers. You can’t go wrong with beans and rice!

19. by Eeva Kulmala on Dec 30, 2009 at 5:21 AM PST

Does barley and beans count? I regularly do a broad bean and barley based meal, be it sauce, oven-cooked beans, fried beans or microwaved precooked beans. Add miraculous local barley and you’ve got a stomach buster in your hands.

20. by anonymous on Feb 21, 2010 at 11:29 AM PST

First, one quick comment: presoaking beans overnight (1 measure bean to 6 measures water) and discarding the soak water prior to cooking helps to prevent bloating/gas.

Here’s my lentil favorite. Pressure cook pre-soaked lentils in vegetable stock (feel free to use water, poultry or meat stock). Very coarsely chop carrots, celery, onion and garlic, and saute them in canola or peanut oil. Stir in dashes of Tumeric and Cumin, deglaze the pan with inexpensive white wine or hot water, and add to lentils. Season and slow simmer (low heat) for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Turn off heat and sit for at least 15 minutes. Serve on Basmati rice or with hot Pita.

21. by bright colors on Jun 19, 2010 at 3:13 PM PDT

I love the trick of sauteing uncooked brown rice in butter or oil and adding a bit of tumeric and cardamom before steaming! My husband and I have used this many times when cooking brown rice.

Recent evidence shows that brown rice is much healthier than white rice. I read about it on a recent blog done via the New York Times which explains that eating brown rice can reduce your risk of diabetes.


22. by anonymous on Jan 7, 2011 at 9:22 AM PST

I was confused by the “fill water to first finger joint above rice.” If you had a wide pan with a thin layer of rice that would be too much water. A narrow, deep pan and it might be too little.Just thought it was odd of you to mention a fool-proof method which is far from reliable.

23. by Nic on Jan 25, 2011 at 3:45 AM PST

^^ But it’s not inaccurate. LOL It should have been how everyone was taught to make “perfect” rice from their Gramma or Mom, you know, before there were rice cookers in every house and and precision measuring was unheard of. Test it at home! I promise it will work.

24. by Chris on Feb 1, 2011 at 7:58 PM PST

Beans and rice are great both in terms of nutritional value as well as in terms of being life saver when you have a busy schedule and not time to shop --- just remember to leave the beans to soak before leaving for work. My favorite are green lentils. Just got the idea to add my lentil recipes to my blog ... later in the week perhaps.

25. by anonymous on Mar 25, 2011 at 12:53 PM PDT

Basic Black Bean Hummus
1.5 Cups of Black Beans (1 – 15 oz can, rinsed and drained)

1 – 3 cloves of garlic, to your taste

1-2 Tablespoons of lime juice, to your taste and desired consistency*

If you want a thinner consistency but not more tartness, you might use:

  • Tomato Paste
  • Yogurt, plain
  • Or water

Add one tablespoon at a time until you reach your desired consistency.

This basic black bean hummus is especially tasty with blue corn chips. It is also very nice with spicy red corn chips.

It can also be used as a vegetarian sandwich spread.

for more information visit http://holy-food.org/?p=364

26. by Robin Cogburn on Apr 23, 2011 at 12:49 AM PDT

I like mine with lime squeezed on top, and then feta cheese sprinkled over it all for a garnish and seasoning. YUM!

27. by Rebecca H on Aug 16, 2011 at 5:41 PM PDT

Thanks for the recipes, they look really good! I know what I will making for dinner tonight. If it passes my husbands taste test, I will certainly be posting it on my blog, http://www.eatnlisten.com to share.

28. by Shannon on Oct 16, 2011 at 7:14 AM PDT

I LIVED on this in college:

1 can black beans
1 can diced tomatoes
1/2 chopped onion
fresh garlic
cumin, toasted in pan
lime juice
chopped jalapeno if you have it, red pepper flakes if you don’t

Simmer and eat with tortilla chips and sour cream. I ate this at least 4 times a week when my food budget was $20!

29. by anonymous on Nov 5, 2012 at 3:36 PM PST

I’m a poor college student who loves finding new budget recipes to try out. My favorite is when I can find recipes" Massachusetts has to offer that are within my budget. Thanks for your great recipe suggestions.

30. by anonymous on Nov 5, 2012 at 3:37 PM PST

I’m a poor college student who loves finding new budget recipes to try out. My favorite is when I can find gourmet recipes Massachusetts has to offer that are within my budget. Thanks for your great recipe suggestions.

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