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Cheap riches

Under-$5 Black Beans and Rice

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It was the summer of 1988, and it was stinking hot in Philadelphia. My pal El and I were brand-spanking-new college graduates and had no idea what we wanted to be when we grew up. Although we both were working in the food biz -- she as a waitress, I as a gourmet-shop cashier -- neither of us knew much about cooking. "Cheap" was an operative word on the dining agenda, with the goal of leaving enough in the budget for tequila shots.

In our quest for something more tantalizing than our (three-for-a buck) coffee, yogurt and cereal dinner combo platter, we embarked on a culinary adventure that ultimately would change my life.

We cooked in an alley. Never mind the rats or overflowing Dumpster, we were living high on the hibachi, with a batch of grilled turkey burgers and eggplant.

While waiting for the coals to get hot, we sat on the urban pavement and sucked back Rolling Rock "ponies" in anticipation of our first alley-cooked -- I mean, home-cooked -- meal. Because we lacked fire-building skills, the turkey burgers took about three hours to cook, but it was heavenly getting there. Nothing compared to that pitch-black, beer-induced moment of eating my first big-girl, low-budget dinner on a grill.

That night in the alley, I caught the cooking bug, and it marked the beginning of a path that would become my life as a cook. In 18 years, in spite of the money I've made and the kitchen tricks learned, I remain a stalwart devotee of the cheap-and-good meal.

One of my favorite go-to, cheap-o meals is a pot of black beans and rice. To pull it off, I need very little -- 10 minutes of my time and about 5 bucks, with enough change for fixins (see below).

A bowl of beans and rice is hearty, healthy (fiber and plant-based protein) and humbling, reminding me of the joy of cooking simply, be it in an alley or on a stove top.

Under-$5 Black Beans and Rice

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon cumin

1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano (or 1 teaspoon fresh leaves)

1 15-ounce can black beans (low-salt version preferred)

1 tablespoon dry sherry (optional)

Salt to taste

Hot sauce to taste (optional)

• Add oil to a medium pot or deep skillet and warm on low-medium heat. Add onion and garlic, allowing to soften, about 2 minutes. Add cumin and oregano, and with a wooden spoon, stir to coat onion mixture. Add beans and sherry, if using, and stir to combine. Cook until thoroughly warmed up, about 5 minutes. Taste for salt and add accordingly. Add hot sauce, if using.

• To make rice: Place 1 cup rice and 1 1/3 cups water in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cover. Cook 8-10 minutes, until water is completely absorbed.

• To serve: Place a mound of rice in a bowl and top with black beans. Eat as is or with optional fixins: salsa, shredded jack or cheddar cheese, chopped scallions, diced tomato, chopped cilantro.

Culinary questions? Contact Kim O'Donnel at kim.odonnel@creativeloafing.com.

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