Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Cool Beans

After reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, listening to a barrage of stories about the rise of global food prices, and seeing prices go up in the supermarket, I've decided to try to cook on the lower end of the food chain and the budget. Apparently I'm not alone.

On April 18, Heather Havrilesky wrote about frugal shopping and buying beans for $0.65 in Salon. "Not canned beans, mind you: Dry beans. Bags of dry beans." She observes a pragmatic woman fondling a 15-bean blend until she sees that the bag costs $2.69, puts it back and declares "Too expensive...You have to buy beans at the Mexican grocery store. They're cheaper."

If I had to eat beans and rice for the rest of my life, for me there's only one dish that would be a top contender: Dal Makhani or creamy lentils. I didn't even have it at a restaurant, I had it out of a foil pack from Trader Joes--it's like Indian chili but richer and ever since I had it, I wanted to try to recreate it. So a couple weekends ago I found a Dal Makhani recipe online that looked promising and went in search of the ingredients, namely the black lentils, which I found at a local Indian grocery.

Unlike Safeway, which only had a couple varieties, they carried every hue of lentil you could imagine, but none of the packages were priced. I asked the mom of this mom-and-pop store how much the "urad dal" was and she said with gas prices so high, the cost of importing them from India kept going up, so she wouldn't know offhand until she rang it up at the register. I may be trying to save money, but I wasn't about to say "Three dollars? In that case, never mind." For $10 I brought home a packet of Dal Makhani (for taste comparison), a packet of palak paneer, a bag of urad dal, and a bag of dry kidney beans.

My first batch didn't turn out so well. I was hungry so I only cooked it for an hour (you can cook it for 30 minutes, but only if you have a pressure cooker), so the lentils were cooked but not creamy-soft. And I burned half of it because I was skimpy on the water. I had to make a few substitutions--didn't have garlic-ginger paste, so I just chopped up some garlic and ginger. Also, I used American chili powder which has cumin and oregano for the red chili power, which I don't think is technically right. And I only had canned diced tomatoes on hand, which I figured was fine since it was going to stew anyway.

It was still tasty enough that my husband ate it and said he'd eat it again. I doubled the recipe the following weekend, used more water, and cooked it for two hours and I think it turned out just right--my husband didn't get any of it because I finished it off over two days before he got to it. So I'm just going to have to cook it again--and I've still got almost a full bag of beans left.

Since I like to feature videos in this blog, I found a video of someone preparing this recipe--the recipe looks more elaborate and even more fatty (the recipe I made called for two tablespoons of butter plus milk, whereas this one calls for cream), but it's probably still better for you than a slab of prime rib.

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