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No Shame in Cans 

Quick and dirty black bean stew

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Has cooking always been so complicated? When I look at recipes in magazines like Cooking Light and Bon Appetit, the pages themselves seem weighed down with all the ingredients to be prepared in intricate separated stages, then elegantly choreographed for assembly, like a culinary ballet. If I weren't comfortable with my keep-it-simple-stupid style of cooking, I'd feel intimidated by today's baroque cooking culture.

I'm not alone. A 2011 survey conducted online by Impulse Research (on behalf of Bosch home appliances) found that nearly a third of Americans prefer to think about cooking or drool over cooking shows on TV than to actually sauté, braise or roast. Even here in organic Humboldt County, how many of us buy all those lovely beets at the farmers' market, imagine delicious banquets and then feel guilty when we don't use them?

I came to cooking late in the game, having grown up with a passel of sisters. The fact that I was never one of Mother's anointed helpers in the kitchen never bothered me until around age 24, when, living alone, I began to feel uneasy that my fridge was cavernously empty and I was subsisting on Doritos and toast. Really.

One bold evening I began. Gingerly, I heated up a can of chili, transferred it to a bowl and dug in. Food snobs may sneer, but hey, if it's in a bowl, it's a meal — and surely we can agree that canned chili is an improvement over Doritos. Soon after, I watched my friend Susan add sautéed onions and celery to a can of clam chowder, making it thicker and chunkier. Until then, it had never occurred to me that you could actually supplement the contents of a can with fresh ingredients.

Next I tried a tuna fish casserole recipe out of the venerable Fannie Farmer Cookbook, which called for a can of mushroom soup, a can of tuna fish, three hard-boiled eggs and noodles. Fannie explained exactly how to boil the eggs and cook the pasta (well, noodles: this was the '70s. The term "pasta" had yet to cross the pond). I faithfully followed her every word, subscribing to my future mother-in-law's wisdom, "If you can read, you can cook." And at My First Dinner Party, the guests pronounced the casserole "gourmet."

Almost 40 years later, I no longer buy cream of mushroom soup, but in my cupboard you'll find rows of canned navy, cannellini, garbanzo, fava and black beans. Another friend described the early years of her marriage, when she and her husband were chronically broke, as "the rice-and-beans days." I laughed, because I could live on rice and beans for the rest of my life. Especially ever-versatile black beans. Add a shot of cumin and cut-up mango or chutney and they taste Indian; add orange juice and they turn Brazilian. Add coffee or cocoa, and they taste "haunting," as one recipe described it.

I know what you're thinking: cans? Yes, I know the beans would be even healthier if I cooked them from scratch (and I'd certainly feel more virtuous), but I'm not one to plan ahead and by the time I want them, I want them now.

Here's my recipe. To lighten it up, I skip the grain and just have the black beans alone. Measurements are approximate, depending on your love of garlic and curry.

Quick & Dirty Canned Black Bean Stew

Serves 2

Ingredients and method:

For the rice:

2/3 cup rice or farro

Start this first because it takes longer to cook than the veggies. Boil 2 cups of water. Stir in 2/3 cup brown rice. Cover and let it simmer 45-50 minutes. (If you use farro, simmer only 30 minutes.)

For the stew:

1 tablespoon olive oil

2-3 big garlic cloves, minced (I love garlic, so I use a lot)

1 onion, chopped, or 1 cup of chopped leek, white and light green portions

1 medium carrot, sliced

½ sweet potato, sliced

1 celery or bok choy stem, chopped

½ green, yellow or red pepper, chopped

1 handful cilantro, finely chopped

½ cup water or broth

¼ cup tomato or pasta sauce

1 can black beans

2 teaspoons curry powder

sprinkling of cumin

sprinkling of fennel, if desired

salt and pepper to taste

Warm the olive oil in a 3-quart saucepan. Add the garlic and onion/leek and sauté for 2 minutes. Stir in the chopped carrot, celery/bok choy, pepper and sweet potato.

Add the pasta sauce and water or broth. Pour in more water if the vegetables start to stick to the pot. Add the cilantro and spices and cook 5 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.

Add the black beans and stir them into the vegetables.

Serve the chili on top of the rice, unless you're someone whose rice doesn't always come out just right (ahem). Mixing the rice and black beans together will hide any imperfections.

Serve and dig in.

Louisa Rogers taught herself to cook with the help of The Joy of Cooking, The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, and The Moosewood Cookbook.

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