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A HOMEY STAPLE EARNS STAR STATUS IN SPICY SOUP

As school starts up, my checkbook balance starts down. First came the notebooks, lunch boxes and fashionable shelves my seventh-grader needs for his locker. Now I'm trying to juggle payments for after-school lessons and sports. Thank goodness beans are cheap.

While the lowly legume can help trim the grocery bill, this homey staple doesn't have to leave the family feeling deprived. In fact, we believe the low-fat benefits of bean consumption should elevate them to star status as long as you start with an intriguing recipe.

Last week's column covered the merits of making a big batch of beans -- it takes just as long to make as a small pot. We advocate cooking a bunch so you'll have leftovers to freeze for an exceptionally easy -- not to mention nutritious and frugal -- meal later.

Don't worry if you missed our South of the Border Beans: we're repeating this easy, 15-minute recipe today. We like to use half of the beans over rice and the rest as the base for today's recipe for South of the Border Tortilla Soup.

Menu

South of the Border Tortilla Soup

Apple Slices

SOUTH OF THE BORDER TORTILLA SOUP

4 cups South of the Border Beans, recipe follows

2 cans (14 1/2 ounces each) vegetable broth

1 1/4 teaspoons sugar

juice of 1/2 lime

4 ounces baked or regular tortilla chips (for 2 1/2 cups crushed), or to personal preference

5 tablespoons shredded Mexican-blend cheese
If the beans are frozen, partly defrost the beans by opening the plastic bag about 2 inches to vent and microwaving them, on high, for 3 minutes. Meanwhile, place the broth and sugar in a 4 1/2 -quart Dutch oven or soup pot over high heat, cover the pot, and bring it to a boil.

Remove the beans from the bag, add them to the pot, and stir gently to break up any frozen chunks of beans. (Be careful not to mash the beans.) When the soup returns to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low.

Stir in the lime juice. Crush the chips slightly and place in soup bowls. Ladle the soup over the chips, and sprinkle with cheese. Serve at once. Makes five servings 5.

Start to finish: 12 minutes.

SOUTH OF THE BORDER BEANS

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

1 large onion (for 1 cup chopped)

1 can (15 ounces) red beans

1 can (15 ounces) white beans

2 cans (15 ounces each) black beans

2 cans (14 1/2 ounces each) diced tomatoes seasoned with garlic and onions

2 teaspoons bottled minced garlic

1 1/2 cups frozen yellow corn kernels

1 1/2 teaspoons chili powder

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
Heat the oil in an extra-deep, 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat. Peel and coarsely chop the onion, adding it to the skillet as you chop. Raise the heat to medium-high, and stir from time to time.

While the onion cooks, rinse and drain the red beans and the white beans, and add them to the skillet. Add the black beans (with juice), tomatoes and garlic. Add the corn, chili powder and cumin. Stir to blend well.

Reduce the heat to low and simmer 2 minutes or until heated through and ready to serve. Makes 2 4-cup batches).

Start to finish: 15 minutes.

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