Skill a Week: Cheap Food

The inaugural “Skill a Week” is one way I’ve been practicing to make cheap food: rice and beans (or, a vegetarian chili). It’s cheap, healthy, and tastes good. What’s not to like?

By the way, I don’t claim to be an expert. I’ve prepared this dish probably 10 times or so and consider this variation a success.

The Recipe

This recipe provides enough for 6 cereal bowl-size servings. If you usually eat a large volume of food, like me, that probably translates to 4 meals that will stuff you.


Note that this is just a rough guideline – feel free to toss whatever in. I’ve included costs for the full batch, based on buying store brand foods, but not in bulk, in the NYC area. I really just have a rough guideline for the cost of spices; suffice it to say that ethnic grocers and non-name brand (ie, non-McCormick) spices are the way to go. Also, feel free to experiment. I’ve tried some garam masala, sriracha sauce, vegetable broth, bay leaf, etc. The key spices are chili powder, garlic, and lemon juice – the lemon juice in particular makes a huge difference.

Ingedient Qty Cal Fat Carb Protein Cost ($)
Garlic Paste 2 Tbsp 15 0 6 2 .15
Goya Salsa 1 Cup 85 0 20 0 1.05
Dried Black Beans 3 Cups 1200 0 264 84 2.25
Brown Rice (Dry) 1 Cup 685 5.5 143 15 .30
Onion 2 Medium 100 0 23.5 2 .75
Lemon Juice Concentrate 1/4 Cup 0 0 0 0 .15
Chili Powder 2 Tsp 0 0 0 0 .05
Cumin Seeds 1 Tsp 0 0 0 0 .05
Turmeric 1 Tsp 0 0 0 0 .05
Black Pepper 1 Tsp 0 0 0 0 .05
Salt 1 Tsp 0 0 0 0 .05
Olive Oil 2 Tbsp 240 28 0 0 .50
Total 2325 33.5 456 103 5.40
Per Serving 388 5.5 76 17 .90


  1. Beans are (ahem) well-known to be gassy. However, proper preparation can reduce this unfortunately side-effect substantially. The key is to get the beans pre-soaked, which starts to destroy some of the chemicals that lead to gas. I start preparing the beans about 2 hours before I begin cooking. Take 3 cups of dried beans and put them in a pot, cover with water, and bring to a boil. As soon as the water is boiling, turn off the stove and let the beans sit for 1 hour. They’ll absorb a lot of water during this time. After the first hour, strain the beans and rinse – you’ll see a ton of black run-off. Put them back in the pot, and cover with water again. Wait another hour and then strain them again. This is pretty flexible, you can try 45 minutes or 90 minutes or whatever.
  2. Dice up the onions, and fry in a pan. I add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Then I add the black pepper, 1/2 the garlic paste, 1/2 the chili, and the cumin. It smells really good. Continue frying for about 5 minutes while preparing the other ingredients.
  3. I cook my beans in a pressure cooker. I’ll put some oil in the bottom to prevent burning, and spread that around, then dump the beans in. Add in 1 cup of dry rice, and then 5 1/2 cups of water. The water is also flexible, I found 5 1/2 cups gives about the consistency I want, thin enough to eat with a spoon, but not soupy.
  4. Add the onions to the beans, the rest of the garlic, the rest of the chili, and the turmeric. Bring the pressure cooker up to pressure
  5. Cook 30 minutes after reaching pressure, then turn off the heat and wait 5-10 minutes for the pressure to subside.
  6. Open the pressure cooker, and add 1/4 cup lemon juice, and 1 cup of whatever cheap salsa you found. Add salt to taste. The chili will be mildly spicy, at this point I add in additional hot sauce. The salt and tomatoes/lemon (both of which are acidic), if added earlier, will give the beans a tougher texture, this is why I wait until most of the cooking is done before adding these ingredients.
  7. Cover the pressure cooker again, and cook at pressure for 10-15 minutes
  8. Done! I add some cheese to my chili before serving; I’ve found that at heat even big chunks of 75% fat free cheese will melt (usually fat free cheese melts poorly). Store leftovers for work lunches or dinner.
  9. I don’t have a microwave, so to reconstitute I put 1/2 tablespoon of oil in a pot to prevent burning, add 1-1.5 servings of chili, and then ~1/2 cup of water, and heat for 7-8 minutes.

Hopefully this was useful. I enjoy the chili and for 90 cents per serving, the price is right, too. Any suggestions would be appreciated. The latest thing I heard was to try adding cinnamon; I might also try cocoa powder.

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1 Comment

  1. Chris

     /  November 6, 2012

    mmm…. beans n’ rice. Prepared correctly, this is not at all a mere subsistence meal. I look forward to every bowl of leftovers I have of the stuff. Some people just don’t get beans!

    My recipe is quite similar. Recently I’ve swapped out the salsa for canned diced tomatoes with chilies. Cheaper salsa tends to be quite pureed, whereas canned tomatoes are fresher and chunkier (which I prefer). It’s also lower in salt, allows for fine-tuned adjustment of hotness, and it’s a bit cheaper: 3 cents/oz during a can sale!

    I’ve tried other beans as well. They add variety in color and texture, but man, it’s hard to beat black beans in terms of nutrients per oz.


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