Beans 101 (Return of Bean Friday!)

bowl of cooked beans

Simple is good.

As a follow up to the “Dollar Supper” post,  this post is about is the simple act of making a pot of beans. I make beans about once a week, the goal being to always have beans in the fridge. For us, they’re an essential staple.

(Readers new to Root Simple should note that we’ve done a lot of posts about beans, and have gathered favorite bean recipes from our readers. So if you’re looking for recipes, look for the Bean Fest tag. Check the recipes tag, too.)

A pot of beans, I’d argue, is one of the keystones of cheap eating. A big pot of beans costs little, and can morph into many meals over the course of a week. This not only saves money, but it saves time. It rescues you from the dreaded “what’s for dinner?” question. Beans got your back.

Skeptical? Here are a few very simple dishes you can throw together if you’ve got cooked beans in the fridge:

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One Secret for Delicious Soup–A Parmesan Cheese Rind

Parmesan cheese rind

Our cats seem to sneak into every food related photo session.

This is simple, but it works so very well. If you use real Parmesan cheese, like Parmigiano-Reggiano, save those rock-hard rinds. They are magic flavor bombs. All you do is add them to soup or bean dishes. Add them at the start of cooking, because they need a good long while to soften up and release their flavor goodness.

They don’t make the dish taste cheesy, but rather add that elusive umami (rich, savory) character to the dish. I think it would be redundant to use the rind if you are already using meat or bacon fat or the like in your soup, but for vegetable-based dishes, it really adds a nice touch.

As to how much rind you should add, it’s kind of hard to say, since rinds vary in thickness. I don’t think it’s necessary to use a whole rind per pot–I usually break my rinds into two halves. The average chunk that goes in my pots is probably less than an inch high by maybe 3 inches long. It doesn’t really matter how much you use. Even a little will help, and there’s no such thing as too much.

I also like to eat chewy, softened rind when the cooking is done, and consider finding it a treasure hunt. Erik doesn’t understand the obsession–and I don’t want him to, because I want it all to myself.

I suspect other hard cheese rinds would work as well, but I haven’t tried it, because the Reggiano is such a staple around here, we can’t afford other hard cheeses!

Supper for a buck?

dinner for a buck

Recently someone asked me how much it cost us to make a loaf of no-knead bread. I had no idea, but was intrigued by the question, so I went home and did the math on the flour.

We buy our flour in bulk from fine company called Central Milling through the Los Angeles Bread Baker’s Club. A 50lb bag of general purpose flour costs $30.00. This works out less per pound than the cheap-0 flour at the supermarket. We actually go through so much flour that it works for us to buy in those quantities, but of course it is also possible to buy flour in bulk and split it with a friend or two.

A loaf of no-knead bread contains the following ingredients: 400 grams of flour, 300 grams of water,  1 1/2 teaspoons of sea salt and, depending on the recipe, either 1/4 teaspoon of active yeast or a bit of sourdough starter. I figured out the cost for the flour (bulk purchased from Central Milling) comes to 52 cents a loaf.

If I were a little more persistent, I could go on and figure out how many more pennies  the salt costs, and yeast or, alternatively, the small amount of extra flour needed for the sourdough starter. But how do you calculate starter costs, since it involves constant feeding over time? And what about energy costs to run the oven? Or the investment in the Dutch oven we use to bake the bread, amortized over time?  This way lies madness.

[Note: I have gone a little mad so I just figured out that there are 636 1/4 teaspoon measures in 1 pound of active dried yeast. 636 theoretical loaves. Problem is I don't know how exactly much we pay per pound of yeast.  We buy it in vacuum-packed 1 lb bags for about 4 or 5 dollars, I think. In any case, yeast costs are less than a penny a loaf.]

Suffice it to say our bread doesn’t cost much. 75 cents per loaf would be an overly generous estimation. And it’s crusty, chewy, beautiful and delicious. Here in LA, I would expect to pay $6.00 to $8.00 for a fresh loaf like this at an artisinal bakery. It’s even cheaper than crappy supermarket bread.

That same night–the night of the question and the math–we had a simple meal:  a loaf of this bread, a bowl of beans and a salad from the garden. It was really good and satisfying, and I realized, also very cheap.

Dried beans run about $1.50 a pound where we shop. One pound of dry beans makes about 6 cups of cooked beans. That’s a lot of food. I’m not going to try to do the math and add up the costs of the onion and herbs and olive oil I add to the beans. And I surely don’t have the patience to figure out the cost of the salad from our garden (do I have to figure in the mortgage?), but I do know that around this time of year I could forage a salad for free from the spring weeds.

But for the sake of a sensationalist headline, I’m ballparking our supper for two at about a dollar. It may have been more than a dollar when all the little things are added up–but I honestly think two dollars would be too much.

We had one thick slice of bread each, and roughly a cup of cooked beans per person–that’s 25 cents worth of beans for each of us. I’m just not figuring the cost of the salad because, 1) it was just a handful of leaves 2) I could forage it, and 3) plenty of the salad plants in our yard are volunteers anyway.

It sounds Spartan, but the beans were really good, silky and filling, and the salad had little flowers from our arugula and mustard plants. The bread sopped up the juice in the bottom of the bowl. It was enough. It was a good way to end the day–not too heavy, and easy to pull together. Cheap eating can be good eating.

I’m going to post about my most recent bean obsession soon –because as we all know, beans are the key to cheap eating– soon as I can remember to take pictures while I cook.

And believe me, I’m on Erik to do a bread-making video. It will come.

Failed Experiment: Bermuda Buttercup or Sour Grass (Oxalis pes-caprae) as Dye

The “dyed” t-shirt is on the left. The shirt on the right is a basic white tee. I could have achieved similar results by entropy alone.

Chalk this one up to the failures column. In an attempt to use Bermuda Buttercup (aka Sour Grass) and various mordants to dye a couple of white t-shirts yellow and green, I succeeded in dyeing both snowy white shirts a pale shade of …let’s call it ecru. Let’s not call it “grimy old t-shirt white.”

There was a moment last night when one shirt took on an extremely light, delicate yellow-green cast–and that was exciting– but the color came out when I hand washed and rinsed the shirts.

Perhaps it was a half-assed project all along. I had no burning reason to dye with Oxalis–except that it’s thick on the ground right now. Also, Oxalis is rich in oxalic acid, which is supposed to (cough) serve as a built in mordant, helping the plant dye to bind more easily to both plant and animal fibers. Oxalis theoretically yields tones ranging from lightest yellow to a sort of acid green, depending on which additional mordants you might use. Used straight, it was supposed to yield a very pale yellow.

So I thought, why not play with it and see what happens?

My only information source for this project was The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes by Sasha Duerr. This, also, was a mistake. I usually use more sources when I start a project, but I felt lazy.

I don’t know if this is a flawed book or not–I’m not judging yet. It’s on probation. It’s a pretty book, and inspirational in that it makes you want to dye everything you can lay your hands on–hell it makes you want to raise your own sheep and spin your own yarn, so you can dip it in acorn, cabbage and fennel dye, sing some folk songs, dance a dance,  compost the solids and acidify your garden soil.with the spent dye.

It sent me into fantasies of living in some groovy Sonoma-Portlandish nirvana where my house is clean and has plaster walls and wood beams in the ceiling (the wood beams are always in the fantasy) and a fire in the grate. I’d watch the goats graze in the back yard while I cheerfully sip tea and knit something marvelous out of hand spun angora dyed with Oxalis.

(As opposed to the reality of me stumbling around our money pit of house in my exceedingly unnatural and ancient polar fleece robe, desperately searching for a chair to sit on that doesn’t hold a cat, so I can watch the LAPD stalking around the unoccupied house across the street, guns drawn, trying to nab arsonist squatters, without being in the line of fire. True story! Just happened!)

ANYWAY. Point is, the book did not serve me well in the matter of Burmuda Buttercup.

This is, therefore, an anti-project post. Following these steps will get you nowhere.

A more determined dyer or a better blogger might soldier on and find the correct answers and report them to you as a public service, but I’m sorry my friends.  I’m giving up on this one and will probably try onion skin next.

Read on if you dare.

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Wild Edible: Bermuda Buttercup (Oxalis pes-caprae )

Image courtesy of Wikipedia. Photo by MathKnight

It’s Bermuda buttercup season in Los Angeles. Burmuda buttercup, also known as sourgrass, soursop, African wood-sorrel and  many other names, is a member of the wood-sorrel family. It originated in the Cape region of South Africa and is now found all over California, parts of Australia and probably other places as well. Here, it comes with the rain and vanishes with the heat.

It’s a “weed” (Wikipedia describes it as a noxious weed and an invasive species) so if you look it up on the internet you’ll mostly find information on how to eradicate it. It’s true, it’s terribly persistent, because it spreads through underground bulbs. But I think its attractive–usually more attractive than whatever neglected patch of landscaping it has colonized. More importantly, it’s super tasty.

It packs a potent, lemony punch, like true sorrel, which makes it an excellent salad green, and that’s how I use it–raw, in salads. The leaves, stems and flowers are all tasty, but for salads I just use the flowers and leaves. They provide a bright, lemony note which is just wonderfully fresh and tasty with tender new lettuce–springtime in a bowl.

As its true name, Oxalis, indicates, it is high in oxalic acid (as are many more common greens, like spinach), and (mandatory warning) oxalic acid should not be consumed in enormous quantities or if your physician has warned against it for some reason. But its sour nature makes it unlikely that you could stomach enough to hurt you.

Give it a try if you haven’t yet. If this form of oxalis doesn’t grow near you, other edible wood sorrels– or naturalized true sorrel–might. Have a look around.

Note the structure: 3 hearts joined at the center, and the distinctive brown freckles on the leaves.

Oxalis pes-caprae has another use–as a dye. I’m experimenting with that this week, and will talk about the results in a future post.

Return of the Egg

Erik found 4 eggs in the hen house today. The ladies are back on the job after their winter break. Thank goodness!

I showed them to Phoebe, who delicately sampled the Eau d’ Hen Butt.

(Phoebe is doing very well, by the way.)

Two of the hens lay with speckled eggs, two lay solid. Their eggs are this unusual, olive drab sort of color, which is difficult to capture with the camera. Our hens are hybrids: a Barnavelder/Americauna cross. We call them WinnetekaVelders. The olive eggs must have something to do with the blending of green egg and brown egg genes.

Happy as I am about the eggs, their re-appearance means our too-short winter is closing fast, and that our fruit trees need to be pruned, asap.

When do hens start laying in your part of the world?

More on our gardening disasters

We need to put the heart back into our garden. (Our Heart of Flax from way back in 2011)

I thought I’d chime in on the subject of this year’s garden failures. Before I do, I’d like to thank you all for your kind advice and commiseration that you left on Erik’s post.

First, I will agree that it really, truly has been a terrible year in the garden. Sometimes Erik gets a little melodramatic when it comes to the crop failure (e.g. the Squash Baby adventure) but the truth is we’ve never, ever had such a sorry string off disasters and non-starters since we began gardening.

And I think that’s something to keep in mind. This is unusual. When things are going wrong, it’s easy to forget how often they go right. That’s why it’s good to keep a garden journal, or a blog, or even just a photo collection to look back on, so you can track your progress more objectively.

So when I look back on this blog, and through our old photos, I can see the successes far outweigh the failures. Disasters are inevitable when gardening–that’s part of the game– but they are usually balanced by good times. This year, though, it seemed nothing went right.

What went wrong?

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The Hen: An Appreciation

Reading the fine book, On Writing Well, I came across this passage by E.B. White (Charlotte’s Web) about chickens, proving that nothing ever really changes:

From “The Hen: An Appreciation,” which is found in the book of essays, The Second Tree from the Corner, by E.B. White, 1944:

Chickens do not always enjoy an honorable position among city-bred people, although the egg, I notice, goes on and on. Right now the hen is in favor. The war has deified her and she is the darling of the home front, feted at conference tables, praised in every smoking car, her girlish ways and curious habits the topic of many an excited husbandryman to whom yesterday she was a stranger without honor or allure.

My own attachment to the hen dates from 1907, and I have been faithful to her in good times and bad. Ours has not always been an easy relationship to maintain. At first, as a boy in a carefully zoned suburb, I had neighbors and the police to recon with; my chickens had to be as closely guarded as an underground newspaper. Later, as a man in the country, I had my old friends in town to reckon with, most of whom regarded the hen as a comic prop straight out of vaudeville….Their scorn only increased my devotion to the hen. I remained loyal, as a man would to a bride whom his family received with open ridicule. Now it is my turn to wear the smile, as I listen to the enthusiastic cackling of urbanites, who have suddenly taken up the hen socially and who fill the air with their newfound ecstasy and knowledge and the relative charms of the New Hampshire Red and the Laced Wyandotte. You would think, from their nervous cries of wonder and praise, that the hen was hatched yesterday in the suburbs of New York, instead of in the remote past in the jungles of India.

To a man who keeps hens, all poultry lore is exciting and endlessly fascinating. Every spring I settle down with my farm journal and read, with the same glazed expression on my face, the age old story of how to prepare a brooder-house…

I do believe I have seen that exact same glazed expression on Erik’s face as he peruses Backyard Poultry Magazine.

Did Kelly follow her 2012 resolutions?

I cringed when Erik said he’d be reviewing his resolutions today, which meant I’d have to take the walk of shame and review mine. Actually, I couldn’t even remember what I’d said I’d do, but at the same time, I was pretty sure I’d not done any of it. If 2012 had a theme, it would be “wheel-spinning” — or at least that’s how it felt to me.

Now that I’ve read over what I wrote last year, I find I actually did do some of it. Sorta. While I do think posting New Year’s resolutions on a blog just begs future embarrassment, I’ve realized that it is valuable to remember where your head was a year ago, and see if it’s still in the same place.

This will be a long, self-indulgent post, so the TL;DR version is that last year I knew I needed to work on my time management skills, and yet I did not improve in that area. This is the key lesson I’m taking from this exercise. The rest is small stuff, but procrastination has been and remains a big problem. Addressing that will be my challenge for 2o13.

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DIY Christmas Trees

A while ago Erik posted a link to an Instructable on how to make chairs out of scrapwood. William, author of that project, just let us know that he’s done a holiday Intructable on how to make a cute and quick modernist “flat pack” Christmas tree.

This sent me into an internet rabbit hole, wherein I procrastinated for a long time by reading about homemade Christmas-tree-like-structures. Two favorites:

1) The Mountain Dew Christmas tree.  On one hand, I’m appalled to think that somebody actually drank that much soda. On the other hand, the structure is really nice and it looks pretty all lit up:

2) And the hardback book tree, made out of a cut-up book. The cool thing about this one is that the cover stays intact, so you can close it up and store it on your book shelf until next season:

Now, I know some people get cranky about book desecration, but even as a book lover and author, I don’t feel this has to be a bad thing. If you’ve ever perused the book section of a Goodwill, you know that there are books out there which could do with re-purposing.

My picks for the chopping block are celebrity bios and inexplicable runaway best-sellers like the Da Vinci Code and 50 Shades of Grey. These publishing phenomena are like biblio oil slicks, cluttering up shelves and choking out endangered books. Erik’s suggestion is Why the Real Estate Boom Will Not Bust – And How You Can Profit from It: How to Build Wealth in Today’s Expanding Real Estate Market …published in 2006. Written by David Lereah, the chief economist of the National Association of Realtors. (!) I’d say maybe that needs to go into a time capsule to explain to future archeologists why our civilization collapsed.