For a decade’s worth of Tuesdays, my grandmother has volunteered at her church to provide meals for homeless people in her community. In the past, she did a lot of the cooking, but lately, she spends most of her time talking with the people who come to eat. “Don’t let anyone ever put you down,” she tells them, “you are a good person.” Some of the food, most of which is donated by local grocery stores, can’t legally be served at these lunches. In California, state law prohibits the church kitchen from using any canned goods that don’t have labels.
Therefore, Grandma has an entire cupboard full of label-less canned foods, each with a small yellow post-it note attached. Because no one on that side of the family can bear to see good food go to waste, she brings the cans home, stacks them on her kitchen table, and from the 28 digit code on the bottom of the can, parses them into beets and beef broth, corn and corned beef hash. Then into the cupboard they go, teetering lego towers of gleaming steel. She can’t eat them as fast as they accumulate, so they are filling her attic, too.
One summer the overstock of unlabeled canned goods grew to a point where even Grandma acknowledged that some of them had to go. All those cans were weighing on her, making her feel guilty for spending money at the grocery store when she already had so much free food to eat. We packed hundreds of cans ( “No – not the pickled beets”!) into brown paper bags, locked them into the trunk of my rental car, then surreptitiously unloaded them in Marin near where the anchor-outs come ashore, and fled like criminals from the scene of a crime.
A few years back, grandma and I went to see Fahrenheit 9/11. Whenever I’m in Mill Valley, it’s our habit to see what’s playing at the Sequoia — usually something very political or something very gay (Quinceanera, Brokeback Mountain, etc.). Whatever the film, it’s guaranteed that her catholic church friends will have been talking against it for weeks. In this case, the secret transgression of seeing Michael Moore’s much-maligned film had grandma feeling very extravagant indeed, and after we were seated, she handed me a $20 for popcorn and drinks. I went out to the lobby, where after a brief paralysis ($15 for popcorn and two drinks?), I walked right out the theater doors and across the street to the Mill Valley Market, where I bought popcorn and drinks for $4.
Not so noteworthy, right? Who among us isn’t outraged by movie concession prices? But from my grandmother’s perspective, this is the very best thing I have ever done. Better than when I first said ‘gra-ma wa-wa’ or got educated or any of the other grandchild milestones you can think up. This act was evidence of my legacy, a pure expression of her bloodline. She tells the story whenever my name comes up. She even tells it to me. “You’re a real Cuevas”, she laughs, “You can really pinch a penny – you know how to make that buffalo squeal!”
In honor of my hereditary cheap gene, I offer you one of the cheapest, easiest and best things that I ever cook, which also makes very good use of canned food. Its appeal is nearly universal. The story of how I landed on its culinary map is a lesbo-kitchen story for another day, but lest you question my culinary credentials for this dish, suffice it to say that I learned to love it during my childhood in Puerto Rico, that I learned to make it from my Puerto Rican vegetarian stepmother who didn’t have time to cook from scratch, and that I have cooked it hundreds, perhaps thousands of times in my life, including almost every single night when I was in college.
Arroz con Habichuelas
Puertorican Rice and Beans
Most puertoricans eat this as a side dish to some kind of meat, but I think it’s great as a main course. I like to serve it with a salad of sliced tomatoes and avocados drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
1 1/2 cups medium or short-grain white rice
3 tablespoons alcaparrado (a mix of olives, capers and pimientos)
3 tablespoons recaito (a paste of garlic, onions, cilantro and sweet peppers)
1/2 envelope of Sazon con culantro y achiote (make sure you get the kind with annato and coriander)
1-2 tablespoons tomato sauce
1 small peeled and cubed potato (optional)
1 can Goya beans, undrained (I like gandules, garbanzos, and pink beans the best)
In a medium pot, combine the rice with several tablespoons of olive oil. The more olive oil you add, the tastier the rice will be. ‘Fry’ the raw rice for a few minutes over medium-high heat, stirring frequently. Don’t allow it to brown. Add 3/4 teaspoon salt and 3 cups water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low, cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid, and cook until done, about 15 minutes.
While the rice is cooking, heat another 2-3 tablespoons olive oil in a medium saucepan. Add the recaito, alcaparrado, tomato sauce and Sazon. Saute for 2-3 minutes.
If you are using the potato, add it now, along with about 1/2 cup water, then cover and cook over medium heat until the potato is almost done, about 7-10 minutes. Add more water to the pan if it dries out.
Add the can of beans, including its juices. Stir, cover, and simmer gently over low heat until the rice is done.
Note: The recaito, alcaparrado, Goya beans and Sazon are generally available at markets that carry mexican and latin american foods. If you live in Albuquerque, all of these ingredients are available at Ta Lin market, but they can also be found at many of the mexican markets around town. While you can use any canned beans for this recipe, I do suggest that you try the Goya brand for their excellent texture and flavor.
lesbo-warning: The Sazon contains MSG. If you think that you are sensitive to it, leave it out and add a little salt to the beans. The dish won’t have it’s signature orangey hue, but it will still taste good. If you really want the beans to be orange and are feeling ambitious, you can buy achiote (annato) seeds, simmer them in olive oil, and then use this achiote oil in place of the olive oil in the beans.