I have friends and family who eat out almost every meal. I just can’t do it – I enjoy cooking, but mostly I covet control of my food dollars and my nourishment. For most weeknight dinners and lunches, I rely on a well-stocked pantry. Fortunately, today’s supermarkets offer such wide varieties of staples that it’s simple to keep inspiring options on hand.
I have two overflowing shelves devoted to whole grains, rices, lentils and dry beans. These relatively inexpensive building blocks generate dozens of highly nutritious opportunities full of lean protein and fiber. What’s more, they can serve as a meatless meal, especially during Lent.
I love that barley and steel-cut oats fill the house with comforting aromas. In less than 20 minutes, I can cook organic freekeh (cracked roasted green wheat) or imported roasted buckwheat groats into pots of nutty flavor ready for a sprinkle of herbs and a dash of oil. Quinoa and bulgur prove even faster.
My stash of heirloom dried beans from Rancho Gordo (ranchogordo.com) practically begs to be cooked. I happily oblige to the benefit of weekday salads and Friday night bean dip.
New to my pantry: Farro, an ancient grain of the wheat family that’s currently in vogue at many restaurants for its toothsome texture and versatile nutty flavor. I like Italian pearled farro (the outer husk has been removed) because it cooks to plump kernels in about 15 minutes.
On the weekends, I’ll simmer long-cooking brown and wild rice, dried beans and wheat berries for weekday convenience. Most of the time, I simmer grains and beans in water so I can use them for either sweet dishes (like hot breakfast cereal) or savory sides, mains, soups, stews. A pinch of salt in the cooking water always enhances the final flavor. For an easy, transportable salad, season 2 cups of warm cooked grains or beans (or a combination) with a couple of tablespoons of your favorite vinaigrette, then pile over salad greens.
In general, cooked beans and grains keep at least a week in the refrigerator; most freeze fine. To retain their toothsome texture, I drain the grains or beans and then lay them out on a baking sheet for rapid cooling. Once they’re cool, I pack meal-size (or individual lunch-size portions) in containers with tight-fitting lids. Try mixing a couple of different grains for great flavor and texture.
Canned beans save the day on many occasions. But when I take the time to cook dried beans, the flavor and textural differences prove astounding. All you need is a saucepan, water and 2 hours of largely unattended cooking to upgrade this inexpensive protein powerhouse. No need to soak beans; in fact, you’ll retain color and flavor if you skip soaking.
Here’s my favorite basic cooked beans method: Put 2 cups dried (rinsed) beans in a large saucepan. Add 2 quarts water and 2 tablespoons olive oil (or bacon fat if you dare). Cook over low heat, stirring often, until beans are nearly tender to the bite, about 1½ hours. Stir in 1 teaspoon salt and simmer until fully tender, another 10 to 20 minutes. Cool.
Take a cue from all those quick-service restaurants and turn your grains and beans into main-course “bowls.” I love to eat this way – a luscious, warm mound of goodness with tidbits of flavor, texture and deliciousness added. I have included two bowls – one inspired by tacos and based on black beans and black rice. The other pairs farro with sausage and broccoli rabe. Either can be adapted for Lent or other vegetarian meals, since the meat is not essential to their success.
View these recipes as starting points – change the grain, change the veg, add cheese, omit the chicken. You get it. Then stay in an enjoy dinner at home.
Warm Black Bean and Rice Bowl with Chicken and Poblanos
Black rice makes this dish look super dramatic. Easiest rice ever? Cook 2 cups rice with 3 cups water in a rice cooker. Turn cooked rice out onto a baking sheet to cool so you can pack it in small containers.
2 medium zucchini, halved lengthwise, sliced ¼-inch thick
2 medium poblano peppers
2 cups canned crushed tomatoes or 1 can (14.5 ounces) small diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 cups drained, cooked black beans or 1 can (15 ounces) black beans, rinsed, drained
1½ cups cooked rice (such as black rice or long grain brown rice)
1 cup corn kernels, thawed
½ large red bell pepper, seeded, cut into small dice
4 green onions, trimmed, thinly sliced
2 cups shredded cooked chicken
¼ cup thinly sliced fresh cilantro
Crumbled queso fresco, mild goat cheese or farmer’s cheese
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Put sliced zucchini on a baking sheet. Add 1 or 2 tablespoons oil; toss to coat it with the oil. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Bake, stirring once or twice, until tender and slightly golden, about 20 minutes. Cool.
Meanwhile, set poblanos directly over a gas flame or under the broiler. Cook, turning occasionally, until peppers are lightly charred on all sides, 2 to 5 minutes. Set on a plate and cover with a towel; let rest until cool enough to handle. Rub off the charred skin, remove the seeds and pith. Cut peppers into ½-inch pieces.
Mix poblanos and tomatoes in bottom of a large microwave-safe bowl. Stir in chili powder and 1 teaspoon salt; mix well. Stir in beans, rice, corn, bell pepper and green onions. Mix well. Microwave on high, stirring once or twice, until everything is warmed through, 2 to 4 minutes. Gently stir in zucchini and chicken. Taste and adjust salt as needed.
Spoon into warm serving bowls. Sprinkle with cilantro and cheese. Serve warm.
Makes 6 servings.
Per serving: 297 calories, 6 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 41 g carbohydrates, 24 g protein, 789 mg sodium, 10 g fiber.
Farro Bowl with Roasted Sweet Potatoes, Broccoli Rabe and Sausage
Diced butternut can stand in for the sweet potatoes. Leftovers reheat beautifully in the microwave. I like to serve them warm over lightly dressed salad greens.
2 medium (1 pound) sweet potatoes, peeled, cut into }-inch pieces
2 tablespoons olive oil
12 ounces mild or spicy Italian sausage, casings removed
1 medium onion or 4 shallots, halved, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped or crushed
2 cups pearled farro (about 12 ounces)
4 cups chicken broth
11 ounces broccoli rabe (rapini), ends trimmed, roughly chopped, about 6 cups
2 to 4 cups baby arugula
Crushed red pepper
1 to 2 cups shredded cheese, such as smoked Gouda, provolone or sharp cheddar
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Mix sweet potatoes and oil on a large baking sheet. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Roast, stirring often, until tender and golden, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, crumble sausage into a large skillet. Add onion; cook over medium heat, breaking up sausage with a spoon, until the sausage is browned and cooked through, about 10 minutes. Stir in garlic; cook, 1 minute.
Meanwhile, put farro and broth into a large saucepan. Heat to a simmer; reduce heat to very low. Simmer uncovered and stir often until nearly tender, about 15 minutes. Add broccoli rabe; simmer until it is crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Strain farro mixture into a colander set over a bowl to catch the broth. (Recipe can be made to this point up to 3 days in advance; refrigerate all the parts separately.)
Add drained farro mixture to skillet with sausage set over medium heat. Stir in about ½ cup of the reserved cooking broth and heat through; remove from heat. Stir in warm sweet potatoes, arugula and crushed pepper flakes. Taste and adjust salt as needed. Transfer to warm serving bowls. Serve, sprinkled with cheese.
Makes 6 servings.
Per serving: 511 calories, 20 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 36 mg cholesterol, 62 g carbohydrates, 23 g protein, 647 mg sodium, 8 g fiber.
Interesting dinner bowls are easy to make if you have a few things prepped in advance. Here are some goodies to keep in small containers in the fridge, then combine to heat in a skillet or in the microwave:
• Cooked rices or grains
• Cooked beans (or high-quality canned)
• Roasted vegetables, such as squash, potatoes, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower
• Green or red onions
• Fully cooked sausages
• Shelled nuts or seeds
• Crumbled cheese
• Fresh herbs
• Eggs: chopped hard-cooked, softly scrambled or fried