Monday, May 25, 2015

Black bean soup "recipe"

[I should have mentioned this before, but if we're sticking with Trader Joe's prices, I might need to borrow a bit from the onion budget to cover the potatoes (which tend to be overpriced at TJ's). The onion (and most other things) was rounded up to the nearest fifty cents; the potatoes werre rounded down.]

When you read accounts of a journalist or blogger or celebrity trying to take the food stamp challenge, it almost always becomes obvious that they have no idea how to cook on a budget. I don't claim any special knowledge in this area, but I do know the basics and I thought it might be useful to blog a few dishes that are appealing and nutritious but which can be made for very little money.

I put quotes around the word "recipe," because what follows is to a true recipe roughly what a treatment is to a screenplay, a broad outline with lots of room for changes. That said, it does have enough in the way of instructions for you to try it at home.

I'm going to assume good but not great prices for the following ingredients (no 10 pounds for a dollar potatoes). I am also going to use canned rather than dried beans on the assumption that canned beans are available at more outlets. As a result, the price estimate here will definitely be middle of the road. If necessary, we could do this quite a bit cheaper.

Here is the basic version:

1 to 2 pounds of potatoes cubed

A quarter to a half of an onion chopped

Three or four cans of black or black and red beans

One 28 ounce can of tomatoes

A half pound of carrots

Lots of hot sauce

5 to 7 drumsticks

After draining the beans, mix everything except the chicken together in a 6 quart slow cooker (and yes I do have a 6 quart slow cooker). Add liquid, place the drumsticks on top, cover and cook for 5 or 6 hours. (This is a very forgiving recipe)

I said the basic version because there are any number of potential variants. Most of this comes down to targets of opportunity. You make your decisions based on what's on sale, what's available, and what's in danger of going bad.

You might leave out the potatoes and serve the soup over rice (probably cheaper this way, though rice can be a hassle to cook), or you might rinse out the remnants of a nearly empty catsup bottle for your liquid, or use leftover spaghetti sauce instead of the canned tomatoes. (If you get a good deal on Ro-Tel tomatoes, you can leave out damned near everything but the beans.)

Let's talk servings and price.

This part of the calculation can be rather tricky. Different people not only have different eating habits, they also react differently to different foods. That said, six quarts is a lot of food and this food is particularly filling . I don't think you would have any trouble getting six or more large meals out of this even if you remove the chicken.

And exactly why would you take the chicken out? Or, put another way, why did you put the chicken in to begin with? Mainly for flavor. These soups benefit greatly from some kind of meat or broth. The juices from the chicken balances out the soup, but the result is hearty enough that it doesn't actually need the meat to make a meal. If we're concerned about preventing hunger, we'll probably be better off setting the chicken aside and using it as the meat coarse for another meal.

This batch ought to be good for five to eight one-pot meals. Approximately how much does this come to per serving? Using roughly Trader Joe's prices we get:

Potatoes                              $0.50

Onion                                  $0.50

Beans                                  $3.00

Tomatoes & seasonings     $2.00

Carrots                               $0.50

With chicken                   +$3.00


This is not a lowball estimate. Shopping around could easily knock one, maybe two dollars off, but I don't want to go too far down the ideal conditions road. The point here is to be representative. Even under less than optimal conditions (and TJ's is definitely less than optimal), it is possible to make a reasonably filling and tasty meal with limited prep time for about a buck fifty.

Just to be clear, I'm not saying that it's easy to live on an incredibly restrictive budget -- it is just the opposite, unrelentingly difficult and stressful -- but if we want to address poverty, we need to start with an understanding of how poor people actually cope..

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