Beans and Grains on a Budget

I have plenty of memories of my college years, and many of them have a common motif, involving soaking or cooking some beans. You see, like many students, I didn't have much of a food budget. As soon as I could move off campus, I did, and I shared a shabby apartment with some other broke people. So, I picked up a cheap crock pot, and well, we ate lots and lots of beans. One of my roommates bought giant bags of navy beans, his favorite, and we always had some in the fridge. Hunger propelled us to devise ways of eating them, mashed into dip or soup, piled on lettuce for salad, made into patties for burgers or croquettes. Brown rice and other grains were equally cheap and easy to keep, and because of the mice, we kept them in the refrigerator (unaware that we were keeping them at peak freshness, as well). We always had something to eat, and it kept us off the cheap pizza diet that's so common among hungry college students.

The same beans and grains that kept me going in college are still great budget stretchers. And I still do enjoy their creamy texture and infinite variety. With more experience and an expanded flavor palette, I can add excitement to my beans and grains with fun ingredient combinations.

While canned beans are convenient, a pound of dried beans makes 8 cups of cooked beans—a little over 5 cans worth. And if I compare the price of canned beans to dried bulk beans, they're quite a bargain. By choosing whole grains over processed grains (even the ones that are labeled "whole grains"), I'm choosing more nutritional value for my dollar, too. A slice of organic whole wheat bread and a quarter-cup of brown rice have about the same caloric value. But the approximate cost of the rice is less than one-third the cost of the slice of bread, so if I'm looking for an accompaniment to a hearty soup or stew, I might consider adding rice to my bowl instead of a slice on the side. According to the USDA, 1/2 cup of beans is the nutritional equivalent of 2 ounces of meat and a serving of vegetables, with 9 grams of protein. It has half a day's fiber and a low glycemic index, helping to keep blood sugar stable. Whole grains also pack in the nutrients and fiber. So stocking up, cooking up, and eating up beans and whole grains makes great sense all around.

Dried beans and grains are eaten all around the world and we can learn much from the many peasant cuisines that infuse high flavor into these inexpensive ingredients—from the beans and rice of Mexico to the farro and cannellini beans of Italy. Indian cuisine is masterful at stretching a penny with legumes and grains. No Indian meal is complete without some kind of dal (the term for bean, usually in a simple curry soup) and a cooked grain. Cuban black beans, Jamaican kidney beans, and garlic and lemon dressed fava beans or chickpeas from the Mediterranean are all traditionally paired with rice, for a flavorful meal. You don't have to stop at rice, either, since it can be fun to try grains like millet, quinoa or barley as foils to these flavorful bean dishes. Red and black rice have come onto the scene, and added great tastes and colors to your whole grain repertoire. Don't forget about corn; whole-grain polenta and popcorn are great grains, too.

Try the below recipes for really quick legume and grain dishes. Simple, good and tasty, they're sure to satisfy your wallet and your palate. Find more beans and grains recipes here.