Something from Nothing 1
So you're coming up on the end of the month, and funds are in short supply, and you've got some friends coming over for dinner, and you want to serve them something that demonstrates that you care about them and about food, but you have to stay within a tight budget. Or maybe you have just come to the conclusion that our typical consumptive (cough, cough) eating habits are not friendly to Mother Earth, and you need to find a way to eat and/or entertain that doesn't cry out "conspicuous consumption!" for all to hear. Or maybe, just maybe, one of your favorite bloggers has issued a call for a "one time only" (Oh as if! You just know that if you contribute it's just going to encourage her, and the next time out, she's going to come up with her nothing out of something event, wherein you will be challenged to spend the largest possible amount of money with the least possible to show for it, in which case, I implore you to consider sending me a duck press: you'll be out a couple grand, and I promise to give you nothing whatsoever in return!) food event, and you want to participate.
With any of these motivations, a young (and, let's face it, not young) man's thoughts turn to beans. Black beans, to be specific. I'm a big fan of all kinds of legumes: I love the lentil (and, not to complain -- much -- but let's face it: Lindy's muhjadarrah recipe is already the ne plus ultra of cooking on a tiny budget; it's really a little unfair of her to set us a challenge when she's already killed the category); the split pea and I are tight; and I'll happily chow down on any number of bean varieties. But the black bean is simultaneously hearty and elegant. It's chic without being precious. It's black, people, and there's a reason why everything else wants to be the new black.
Besides, you can get a pound of black beans for seventy-five cents, and it'll easily feed six people.
I had originally planned to walk into the supermarket with ten bucks and walk out with enough for a meal for four or six people. Starter, main course, dessert. Or main course, with sides, and dessert. But there's always something. In this case, it was the hamhocks. At the first store I visited (near church) there weren't any. When I got to a store that I knew would have them, they were only sold in packs of two, and the lightest two-pack was still in the neighborhood of three dollars. This would still have left me within my budget if I hadn't been determined to get a dessert and if I'd had some idea what I really wanted to make for dessert. I was thinking of baked apples, but apples are not really all that inexpensive at the moment. Anyway, I think that I ended up spending between twelve and thirteen dollars for almost everything. I decided that I could go with the spices and the olive oil that were already in the pantry. (I was only using a little bit of olive oil, anyway, and if there are any starving college students out there who think that I should really have had to buy all new spices for this challenge, then I will happily shut you up by sending you a pepper mill loaded with peppercorns. Actually, that sounds like a good charity: Pepper for Pupils. I must remember to look into that; it pains me to see people trying to cook without freshly ground pepper.) And given what I did buy, for another two dollars, I could have made the same meal a second time.
I got a bit off track with dessert, so I'll have to save that for another post, but for my main course, I decided to go with black beans on a fried round of grits. The black beans are cooked with a hamhock, crushed tomatoes, and some spices. The grits are flavored with garlic and cheese and then left to firm up in an empty can. Cutting rounds of solidified grits from a can with a piece of thread is about as much fun as anyone should ever expect to have in the kitchen. It takes playing with your food to a whole nother level. The black beans are started on the stove but finished in the oven. I believe that redfox first suggested this technique to me, but I also believe that she said she got it from some place like egullet. I wish I remembered for sure, but the point is that someone else invented it, and I'm a little bitter that I didn't think of it myself, not that I would let that keep me from using it.
In addition to being a dish that is almost embarrassingly inexpensive, it's something that you have to make large parts of in advance. You could start it the morning of the evening you want to serve it, but it's a lot easier to make both the beans and the cylinder of grits a day or more in advance and then finish it when you're ready to eat. It all keeps and reheats very well.
Black Beans after the Style of the Mesopotamians*
For the black beans:
1 pound dry black beans
7 cups water
1 cup canned crushed tomatoes
5 cloves garlic, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 t. cumin
1/2 t. red pepper flakes
For the grits:
1 cup quick-cooking (not instant) grits
4 cups water
1 T. olive oil
1/2 t. salt
1/2 clove garlic, minced
4 ounces extra sharp cheddar, grated
Additional olive oil, for baking or frying.
Make the beans:
Preheat oven to 325 degrees
In a large (4-quart) ovenproof saucepan, combine the first eight ingredients. Stir, cover, and bring to a simmer. Put the whole shebang into the oven and cook for ninety minutes. Check the beans. If they're not done, cook them until they are.
Remove and discard the bay leaf. Remove the hamhock, discard the bones and fat, coarsely chop the meat, and return it to the pan. Stir again, taste, and correct seasoning with the salt and pepper. Set aside.
Make the grits:
Grease a clean, empty can. Line the bottom with a round of greased parchment paper.
Put the water in a saucepan. Add the garlic, salt, and olive oil, and bring to a boil. Add the grits in a slow stream, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and simmer for five minutes. Stir in the cheese and correct the seasoning. Pour the grits into the can, cover, and refrigerate.
Reheat the beans. Either put a nonstick skillet or griddle over a medium flame or preheat your oven to 400 degrees and oil a baking sheet. Slide the grits cylinder partway out of the can, until the amount outside the can is the thickness that you want your sliced disk-o-grits to be. Take a piece of thread and slide it under the grits, then pull it up through the grits, holding it against the opening of the can to get an even cut. Brush both sides of the disk lightly with olive oil.
Put all of the disks either on your frying pan/griddle or on the baking sheet. If you are frying them, fry for about eight minutes (they will be brown but not be very dark) then flip and fry the other side for another eight minutes. If you are baking them, put the baking sheet in the oven for ten minutes, then flip and cook for another ten minutes.
Put a browned grits round on each plate, top with a mound of black beans. Garnish if you like.
This dish, in addition to being cheap, is extremely filling. The baking/frying times for the grits rounds are highly approximate. You should adjust the flame and the times depending on how thick you make your slices. If the slices are thick, there is nothing fragile about them, but you still want to flip them as few times as possible so that you don't lose bits off the disk, even though you're just going to cover the disks with black beans and no one would know anyway. I used a 28-ounce (I think) crushed tomato can to mold my grits, but you could use a coffee can and have a wider disk and just cut it thinner. Or you could use two soup cans and give each person two or three smaller disks.
You could also, of course, do the same thing with polenta, but, as much as I love polenta, I grew up with grits, and I appreciate the, well, grittier texture.
I actually only used six cups of water when I made my beans. They solidify quite a bit upon resting, and I would have been better off to have added another cup or two of water. They were still very good, but I would have preferred a slightly more liquid texture.
It would be no trouble at all to double this recipe to feed a crowd, provided you have a big enough ovenproof saucepan. A small stockpot would work nicely. I actually did double the grits portion of the recipe, but the girls and I ate half for dinner, so the recipe is a reflection of what was left for the grits disks.
*I have no idea from which corner of my fevered brain I pulled this title, but I'm pretty sure that you can't prove that the Mesopotamians didn't eat their black beans this way. They were a terribly chic people, you know.