Perhaps I’m not qualified to write this story. I haven’t puked inside a dorm room in at least 15 years, and the last time I took a grad school course, the internet was still version 1.0. But back when I was in college, outside of six blissful months spent dating a hot blonde with a convertible and a trust fund income larger than most people’s annual salary, my monthly beer consumption easily outstripped my capacity to pay up. I’ve been hungry, and I’ve been late for class; I imagine those aspects of college life are somewhat universal.
So, what do you do after waking up three hours late for class, half naked and sprawled under a bush on the front lawn of the college president’s house, with your head pounding like a road crew jack-hammering potholes and almost nothing in your pockets besides some random chick’s phone number? You gotta eat — in most cases, on the $5 bill crumpled in the back pocket of your dirty jeans. Stumble home, find your best friend, bitch him out for leaving you on the side of the road last night, and go find some grub. It’s an age-old problem, with myriad solutions.
Eating on the cheap is an art unto itself. Way back, before the City Paper dining expense account, when pennies had to stretch, I found myself in the kitchen, armed with late-night reruns on the then-fledgling Food Network and cookbooks checked out from the college library. Ten bucks at the Piggly Wiggly these days can still stock you up with the staples of poverty’s kitchen: potatoes, bacon, eggs, perhaps a bag of flour. Rustle up a few fresh herbs from the back stoop or the window sill and some veggies from mom’s garden at home and you can throw together a decent meal. I learned to cook this way. And I started with rice and beans.
I think I realized rice and beans were a big deal when I learned that jazz great Louis Armstrong signed all his letters, “Red Beans and Ricely Yours.” The combination has always been a fact of life, a hallmark of childhood in the deep South, but as my interest in cuisine widened, and with it explorations into the history of the Atlantic, I came to understand that this simple combination of cheap ingredients personified the struggle of the Americas.
The rice showed up as an import, a traveler from Asia via the slave coasts of West Africa. The beans were all-American, staples of the native tribes and reminders that Europeans, Africans, and Asians were not the first people to ply the land. Together, they form the basis for preparations up and down North and South America, not just because they make a fabulous canvas for experimentation, but also due to the combo’s nutritional synergy: the two together are healthier than either served alone. For me, beans and rice, two simple ingredients, brought together by the currents of history, became a dorm room staple.
Over the years, I have perfected a variety of rice and bean dishes, from the local Hoppin’ John (black-eyed or field peas and rice) to the lip-smacking heat of Nicaraguan gallo pinto, which translates as “painted (or mottled) rooster.” To help starving students, we thought we’d pass a few along. So bust out your hot plates, and put a pot of water on to boil.
You can find a million ways to make Hoppin’ John (and his sidekick “Limpin’ Susan”), but they’re all pretty much the same: cowpeas or black-eyeds cooked with plenty of smoked pork, a few herbs, a hot pepper or two, and long grain rice in the classic West African Pilau style. No one really knows where the name came from, but this Lowcountry classic makes a filling one pot meal. You can use almost any kind of smoked pork to flavor the pot (I buy whatever Doscher’s market out on Highway 17 has on sale), and I like to pick up a whole bush of “Charleston Hots” from the Ladson flea market.
1 cup of dried black-eyed peas
Water to cover (5-6 cups)
1⁄4 lb. of bacon, roughly chopped
1 onion, chopped (about a cup)
1 piece of smoked pork (ham hocks, jowls, neckbones — your choice)
1 whole hot pepper (preferably a “Charleston Hot”)
1 sprig of fresh thyme
1 bay leaf (preferably stolen fresh from the bay laurel tree down the street)
Salt and pepper (to season the cooking water to taste)
1 cup of long grain, white rice (anything but the “converted” kind)
Rinse your peas and soak them in the water overnight. Fry the bacon until the fat renders out and sauté the chopped onion over medium heat in the bacon grease until it looks translucent in the pan (about 10 minutes). Add everything else, besides the rice, and simmer uncovered for about an hour or so, until the beans are tender (the older they are, the longer they will take). When the beans seem right, add the rice, bring the pot back to a good simmer, and tightly cover to cook for 12 minutes. Take off the fire without stirring and let the pot sit covered for 20 minutes to “soak.” Then fluff your Hoppin’ John with a fork and serve it up.
Gallo Pinto (with chilé)
All over Nicaragua and Costa Rica, you’ll find the painted rooster. It’s the mainstay of the diet. It varies, depending on location, with Nicaraguans generally preferring small red beans, and Costa Ricans going for the familiar black ones. Out on the Corn Islands, off the Eastern coast of Nicaragua, they spike the standard preparation with a base of coconut oil, top it with a fried egg, and drizzle the local hot sauce, which they call chilé, all over the whole pile. It’s spicy enough to make daredevil chicken wings seem like yesterday’s news — and they eat this stuff for breakfast.
For the chilé:
Stuff a clean plastic jug with a dozen habañero or scotch bonnet chilies (halved), a dozen peeled garlic cloves, and a large sliced onion. Top it up with enough cider vinegar to cover and put it in the closet with the cap on tight for about a week. Hint: Don’t use this stuff to play drinking games.
1 onion, chopped
2 Tbs. coconut oil (or other canola oil if you’re really broke or some type of health nut)
1 green or red pepper
Pinch of ground cumin
1 cup of dried beans (red or black)
4 cups water
Salt and pepper
2 cups white, long grain rice
Soak the beans in water to cover overnight.
Sauté the chopped onion and bell peppers in 1 Tbs. of the coconut oil over medium heat until the onion turns translucent. Add the cumin and beans, stir, and then pour in enough water to cover it by about an inch. Simmer this uncovered for an hour or so, until the beans are tender, making sure the water level covers the beans.
Meanwhile, heat another pot over medium heat and add the remaining oil to the pot, throw in the dry rice and toast it in the oil until fragrant. Add the water and a teaspoon or so of salt, bring to a boil, and then simmer tightly covered for 12 minutes. Let sit covered and off heat for 10 minutes and then stir in the cooked beans. Mix well and place in a warm oven until ready to serve.
To serve as a full meal, top with a fresh egg lightly fried in coconut oil and drizzle with as much chilé as you can stand.
Moros y Christianos
“Moors and Christians” obviously harkens back to the great Iberian struggle that birthed modern Spain, but the dish crossed the Spanish Atlantic and landed in the West Indies, where the rich mixture of rice and black beans is widely celebrated today. It uses a Latin-Caribbean flavor base of onion, green peppers, and tomato (widely referred to as a sofrito) to color it as beautifully as an island sunset. You may need to raid your momma’s kitchen and the neighbors prized herbs to pull it off, but the finished dish is worth all the trouble.
1 cup black beans
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
1 large tomato, roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 Tbs. chopped cilantro
1 hot pepper, minced (I use a half a scotch bonnet, but watch out for the heat!)
Large sprig of fresh thyme and another of oregano
A big pinch of dried cumin
1 bay leaf
1 Tbs. apple cider vinegar
2 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt
Lots of ground black pepper (your call)
1 cup rice
Rinse the beans, cover them with water and simmer until tender, about 40 to 50 minutes. Drain.
While the beans are cooking, heat the olive oil over medium heat, and sauté the onion, bell pepper, tomato, garlic, cilantro, and hot pepper until the mixture is soft and very fragrant, about 15 minutes. Add the thyme, oregano, cumin, bay leaf, vinegar and water. Add salt and pepper and bring the pot to a boil. Throw in the cooked beans, add the rice, and simmer tightly covered for 12 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to rest covered for 10 minutes before serving.
Got your own rice and bean recipe to share? Let’s hear it.