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TODAY

Monday, May 27

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"This is the year of shaving and saving," a friend said to me to explain her plans for 2008. "Aside from food and travel I'm not buying anything I don't have to."

It's a good philosophy to talk about as Lent rolls around. The idea of giving up something you don't really need for a while, just so you appreciate it more after a break. It's something I understand intellectually. It's something that makes a lot of sense to me on many levels, but not being Catholic I don't have the drive to push forward for a prescribed length of time.

But talking about saving money for travel, just as New Orleans is popping up in the media due to Mardi Gras happenings this week, had me wondering how much money I might have to shave off my budget to be able to afford another weekend trip this summer. And when I realized that if I shaved just a little off my lunch budget I could save enough for a trip, I suddenly had the incentive to follow in my friend's footsteps.

So I decided that I needed to make a dish that would be fairly inexpensive to make, create a lot of leftovers for freezing and taking to work for lunch, but I want something warm and heating since it's winter. Bean soup gets boring after a while, and I had a lot of chili this weekend, so I turned to my favorite food city to the south for inspiration.

And it didn't take very long at all. And as soon as I saw the recipe, I had Sir Mix-a-Lot running through my head. "Red beans and rice didn't miss her." The dish that is traditionally made every Monday in New Orleans (Tuesday is Jambalaya), the dish that is affordable and great for feeding a huge family or a huge group of friends, the dish that sounds tasty enough to keep me coming back at lunchtime for more.

The good thing about many cajun-inspired foods is that they were created by people who didn't have a lot of resources and needed to make them stretch. But they had to do it in a pleasing way. No boiled cabbage, plain potatoes, and steamed pork here, oh no, honey! But many recipes start with rendered bacon fat, loads of sausage, or butter.

So, could I make a pot of tasty beans and rice that satisfied the saving on the budget and the shaving on the calories? I thought I could, but I wasn't sure how to introduce the smoky flavor I desired without providing gobs of fat from a ham hock. But two plastic-wrapped smoked turkey legs let me know that there was definitely hope for me. I then found some spicy chicken sausage that was done in an andouille style. It's admittedly not as good as the real thing, and it was more expensive, but I decided that it would be a worthy investment since I was spending so little on the rest of the ingredients.

Red Beans and Rice
1 pound of dried red kidney beans
2 tablespoons of olive or vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper chopped
4 stalks of celery, chopped
4-6 cloves of minced garlic
1 smoked turkey leg
1 pound of andouille or similar style sausage
1 teaspoon of dried thyme
1 teaspoon of dried oregano
1 teaspoon of dried basil
1/2 teaspoon of dried black pepper
1/4 teaspoon of cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon of celery salt
2 tablespoons of sweet or Hungarian paprika
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce
1 quart of vegetable broth
salt, pickled onions, and Tabasco sauce to serve on the side

3 cups of rice
4 1/2 cups of water

Sort through the beans to remove any stones, dirt or other inedible bits. Place in a bowl and cover with cold water by 3 inches. Let it sit overnight. This makes the beans cook faster and reduces the chances of, um, yeah, um, gas. When ready to start cooking, drain the water and place the beans in a pan over medium-high heat. Cover with water again and bring them to a rolling boil. Boil until the beans start to get soft. This should take at least 45 minutes but shouldn't take more than an hour. While the beans boil, place a heavy skillet over medium heat and add the onion, bell pepper and celery. Sauté for several minutes until the onions turn translucent, about 7-10 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté while stirring constantly for another minute. Turn off the heat and let it sit until the beans are cooked and drained. Add the vegetables to the beans along with the turkey leg, the sausage, the seasonings and the vegetable broth. Add just enough water so that the beans are just covered. Place the pan over a medium-high heat and bring it to a boil before reducing the heat to very low and letting the pan simmer while covered for about 3 hours. (Or you can put this in your slow-cooker on high for about 4 hours, or low for 6-8.) If cooking on the stove, make sure you stir frequently so they don't stick to the bottom of the pan. The beans should mash a bit and get creamy toward the end of the cooking time. If yours don't, pull a few cups of beans out of the pan, mash them with a fork, and return them to the pot. During the last 30 minutes of cooking time, cook the rice in a rice cooker, or on your stovetop. Taste the beans and add seasonings as you see fit. Ladle over a bowl of rice and serve with some crusty French bread and a good beer. May I suggest a Turbodog by Abita Brewing Company?

So even if you're not Catholic, and even if you're not in New Orleans, you just might enjoy a little traditional cooking while you shave calories and save dollars. It just might give you a little extra money so you have something fun to do once the snow has melted in 6-8 weeks or so. I know I'll be thinking of the warm weather, tasty food and long strolls through Audubon Park while I eat my beans and rice for lunch.

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About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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