Wednesday, February 27, 2008

rice and beans is pretty much perfection

"Darling," I said, "to honor your entrance into this world, I will cook for you whatever your heart desires on this special day."

Or, "Hey, it's your birthday, whaddaya want for dinner?" Either way, same idea -- I offered William any meal he wanted -- even meat, I said!

"OOOH!" he said. "Can you make rice and beans?"

Talk about easy to please!

He has a point, though. Rice and beans may well be the most perfect meal ever. When we all arrive in heaven, perhaps we will be fed rice and beans for the rest of eternity. If you think that wouldn't be a sweet, sweet deal, then you've never had good rice and beans!

I have fond memories from Costa Rica of eating gallo pinto for breakfast, and lunch, and dinner... mm, delicious. Speaking of Costa Rica, I don't know where my yucca bread recipe went... that is a culinary treasure right there, notes scrawled in my schoolgirl spanish while I tried to follow my host mom's bemused instructions. "Put it in a hot oven," she said. "How hot?" I asked. "Bastante," she said. "Hot enough."

"For how long?" "Until it's done."

Man, I hope I still have that somewhere.

Anyway. The point is, I made William rice and beans for his birthday.

But not just any rice and beans. Rice and beans that were CHOCK FULL of vegetables.

That's pretty much one of the best things about rice and beans. There's a continuum of complexity, and the dish gets better as you move up, but it starts out pretty spectacularly.

White rice mixed with canned black beans, drained. Dude. Most basic thing ever, and yet right there you have a fat-free, high-fiber, complete protein. Top it with salsa and cheese, serve it with fruit, BAM -- balanced meal!

But saute onions and garlic, then add the beans and then the rice -- dude. Perfection. That is gallo pinto right there. Slap some Salsa Lizano and some cilantro on it? Brilliant. Pure brilliance.

But wait! Add some bell pepper -- green, red, yellow, whatever. Now you have color! and more flavor! it's brilliant.

But the rice and beans aren't done with you, oh no! Add some cumin and some cayenne pepper -- a little bit of flavor, a little bit of kick. Add lime juice. Add mango, chopped up real small.

Add carrots -- the carrots are what really make it, I think. Saute them until they're almost tender, but still have a bit of a bite to them -- adds texture, color, flavor, a different shape...

and then you can mix up the beans -- black, red, kidney, pinto, getting crazy! And you can throw in lots of vegetables, or just a little, or spice the heck out of it, or not at all, and you can get fancy, or super plain, and pretty much no matter what you do it is still delicious.

And maybe BEST OF ALL, you can eat it by itself, or in burritos, or in quesadillas, or heck, in soup!

Endless variations. Incredibly nutritious. DIRT CHEAP.

I'm telling you. God eats rice and beans.

(that is dessert in the background)

This particular incarnation featured sweet onions, garlic, red and green bell pepper, carrots, asparagus, and black and kidney beans with plain white rice. Cumin and cayenne pepper, a little bit of lime juice, served with salsa and cilantro and cheddar cheese and homemade tortillas.

(Recipe? Gently saute garlic 'til it's odiferous. Add carrots and onions, saute 'til almost to your liking. Add chopped bell peppers and asparagus -- continue for another couple minutes. Toss in a can or two of beans, drained but not rinsed, and stir 'till heated through. Shake on some spices. Add the rice, stir, shake on some more spices, and serve. Beeeautiful.)

My homemade tortillas are still just kind of eh -- which, for being so cheap they're practically free, isn't bad. But I tend to aim higher than eh.

I'm working on learning how to make almost all our staple items -- bread, tortillas, pitas, one of these days I might even try bagels. Unfortunately, I have this problem of aiming high. I don't just want to make something well enough that it can adequately replace what we could buy -- it has to be mindblowing. I don't want my bread to meet the standard I hold for storebought bread -- oh no. It's going to have to be MUCH, MUCH better.

Right now I have the excuse that i've been seriously baking for all of a month -- but pretty soon, that's going to run out. And I'm going to have to shape up. My tortillas won't be allowed to just be okay any more -- I'm going to have to find out how to make them a little more flexible, a little less floury-tasting, a lot more extraordinary. Mindblowing. Someday I will make mindblowing tortillas. I am thinking of spicy tortillas, of spinach tortillas, of corn tortillas with just the right amount of texture, of flour tortillas that never rip. I am thinking of tortillas like manna from heaven.

But they're okay right now.

Dessert, on the other hand? Pretty darn good, if I do say so myself.

William wanted apple pie, but decided having a whole pie for just the two of us would be excessive. "OOH," he said. "Could you make little pies?"

They aren't tarts. They are miniature pies. Why? Because that is cooler, that's why. Nyah.

They also helped push us over our grocery budget for the month, because I bought an excessive amount of apples and little bitty pie tins, but WHATEVER. It was the boy's birthday, for heaven's sake.

The recipe was good old Joy O' Cooking, cut just about in half and miniaturized into four little tarts. I barely even variated -- twice as much cinnamon and nutmeg (and why would nutmeg be optional in an apple pie, hmm?) -- but that's it, really.

Drove myself crazy with the tiny, tiny lattices -- popped 'em in the oven 'till they looked done. Then pulled them out, completely crushing one of them in the process (I have this habit of touching really hot pieces of metal, and then screaming and dropping things. Oops.)

I didn't take pictures of that one.

So, question about pie crusts. I actually was pretty successful this time -- the crust was decently flaky. I used cold butter and a pastry knife and everything. Thing is, I understand that the secret to a great pie crust is to handle it as little as possible. (Bread dough is like a cuddly, cuddly friend -- it wants to be hugged and squeezed and loved. Pie crust would rather you didn't talk to it, thanks very much.)

So I did my best, I really did. But it was nigh impossible to make the lattices without overhandling the dough -- I had to reroll it out a couple of times, push it into place, squeeze bits together.

And yet the lattice was the flakiest, lightest part of the dough! How does that work? It's messing with my mind. I assume it has to do with its proximity to the heat source and absence from the gooey interior, but still. Doesn't seem fair.

Aren't they cute?

Sometimes, I like looking at food even more than eating it. Not usually, but it happens. I particularly like looking at food when it is something I made and I managed not to screw it up. (It's not usual -- but it happens!) And now that I'm trying to learn how to take non-crappy photos of food, it is like a combination of looking at food and a CHALLENGE. Sometimes it takes me a while to start eating.

William is totally in favor of my obsession with food -- partly because he is lovely and delightful and supportive, and partly because it means I am always setting down in front of him new things for him to eat -- things like itty bitty apple pies. However, the food-photographing thing seems to exasperate him.

Or maybe, "Stop taking pictures of your pie. Just eat it! Eat it, or I'm eating it for you!" was less about me taking pictures, and more about him stealing my pie.



Seven Levels said...

O man all this talk about food makes me want to eat! Especially what you're making it looks wonderful! I do miss you a lot Camila!

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

Lovely birthday dinner! I think rice and beans done in the Cuban style, with oodles of cumin and a nice sofrito, is my favorite way. But I love both red and black beans cooked with rice. I could eat it every day.