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Pot of grain, pot of beans

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Homemade meal kits start with staples
Farro, Feta and Roasted Chickpea Salad. (Cristina M. Fletes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)
Frittata Muffin recipe for any grain. (Juli Leonard/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS)
Kale and Quinoa Salad from Gayle's in Capitola, near Santa Cruz, makes for a great summer dish. (Glenn Koenig/Los Angeles/MCT)
Tortilla soup with red kidney beans, as seen on Friday, January 22, 2021. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)

This one saves time; that one saves money; this one is organic; that one is eco-friendly.

A virtual buffet of meal kits are hawked on social media — even “news” sites — as the magic formula for putting delicious yet wholesome dinners speedily on the table.

But the best meal kits are the ones you make yourself. Sounds contradictory, right? Hear me out.

My no-frills method may have a no-frills name. “Pot-of-grain-pot-of-beans,” however, can’t be beat for personal, planetary and budgetary health. And it’s easy.

Start by selecting a dry bean and a whole grain from grocers’ bulk bins. Or buy packaged dry beans and grain. Purchase enough to feed your household over the course of several days, or up to a week. For reference, a half-cup each of cooked grain and cooked beans is a serving, and both double in volume from their dry state. Factor in a couple of extra servings, just to be on the safe side.

Now add a week’s worth of produce, preferably fresh, in-season fruits and vegetables. Augment, if desired, with 3 to 4 ounces per person per meal of meat, seafood, eggs or plant-based protein. Allow room for dairy, depending on dietary requirements and preferences. And ensure the pantry is well stocked with staples, including but not limited to nuts, seeds, dried fruit, pasta, vinegar, oil, broth, coconut milk, herbs and spices.

Make a loose menu that accommodates the ingredients purchased, along with any already on hand, particularly foods that need to be used up. These aren’t the week’s hottest dishes, with exotic edibles, touted on social media. These are family favorites, fortified with extra fiber and nutrients presented in a familiar framework.

The idea is to mix and match beans, grains, vegetables and protein in nearly endless combinations that afford flexibility throughout the week. Unlike assembling in advance a few stand-alone casseroles or slow-cooker meals for future consumption, “pot-of-grain-pot-of-beans” encourages rolling each meal into the next. This approach minimizes food waste and promotes culinary creativity and, eventually, confidence in beginner cooks or anyone who suffers kitchen inertia.

A multicooker, such as the Instant Pot, makes short work of both beans and grains. But if you don’t have one, just plan on soaking beans and denser grains, such as farro, overnight. Deposit a pork shoulder or beef chuck roast into the multicooker or slow cooker for divvying among the coming week’s meals. Or roast a chicken or two while your beans and grain simmer. Simultaneously, bake a few potatoes, sweet potatoes or a pan of diced root vegetables.

This hour or so of hands-off cooking is the ideal window for washing greens and tearing them into salad, for slicing and dicing carrots, celery, onions and more for soup, stew and stir-fry, for grating cheese, shredding cabbage and mixing up dressings and sauces. Start with simple seasonings and build flavors over the next few days.

Brown rice, black beans and chicken on a single plate falls within many of our comfort zones. These basics can be Latin- or Asian-inspired. Besides tacos and stir-fry, they spawn salads, soups, stews, noodle dishes and, if you’re so inclined, casseroles. Bean and grain “bowls” are obvious. Variety comes from a hearty helping of vegetables at every meal.

Then step outside your norm. Choose a different grain and different legume the next week. Buy a piece of produce you’ve never prepared. If you need a recipe for guidance, go ahead and search for one but don’t feel stuck without it.

One of my favorite menus calls for roasting a leg of lamb, steaming a pot of millet and simmering some French lentils. If you don’t care for lamb, substitute beef pot roast. Unfamiliar with millet? Quinoa is a lookalike. Roasted meat slices initially go alongside millet pilaf with dried apricots and dates, as well as lentils with peeled and diced, steamed butternut squash.

Subsequent days bring (1) big salads with cold lentils, leafy greens, roasted beets and goat cheese; (2) stir-fry with strips of lamb, mushrooms and broccoli over millet; (3) baked acorn squash, bell peppers or eggplants stuffed with lamb, millet, nuts and herbs; (4) tacos or pita with more lamb, lentils, millet, tomato, onion, cucumber, etc.

Concluding the week is lamb stock from the leg bone and trimmings from the veggies. Curry-spiced, the stock becomes stew featuring any and all remaining veggies, plus any leftover lentils.

Yes, cooking — a couple of hours per week — is still required. But meal kits don’t absolve their adherents entirely. And “pot-of-grain-pot-of-beans” has been tested and approved, not by corporate chefs, but millennia of humble home cooks. Put on some music, get the entire family involved in weekend prep and consider the time well spent.

See my Jan. 12 column for a glossary of whole grains to use in these and other recipes. Search “pantry basics” on the Mail Tribune’s website for my list of staples published in April 2019.

Quinoa and Kale Salad

1-1/4 cups quinoa, well rinsed under running water

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

3/4 cup cooked chickpeas (may use drained, canned chickpeas)

1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

Kosher salt, as needed

1 cup kale (preferably lacinato), stemmed and cut into ribbons

1/2 cup chopped celery

1/3 cup dried currants

1/4 cup cut jarred piquillo peppers, drained and cut into strips

3 tablespoons chopped scallions

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the quinoa until tender, for about 15 minutes. Drain well, fluff on a rimmed baking sheet and set aside to cool.

In a saute pan heated over medium-high until hot, add the 2 tablespoons olive oil and the chickpeas, sprinkling over the ground cumin and a pinch of the kosher salt. Saute until beans are lightly colored and aromatic. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

In a large bowl, toss cooked quinoa with cooked beans, the kale, celery, currants, piquillo peppers, scallions, parsley and lemon zest.

To make dressing, whisk together remaining 1/2 cup olive oil, the vinegar and juice from zested lemon, 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste, and the black pepper.

Add dressing to salad, a few tablespoons at a time, tossing to coat. You may not use all dressing. Taste and season if desired.

Makes about 5-1/2 cups salad, 4 to 6 servings.

— Recipe from Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria, Capitola, California

Red Bean Tortilla Soup

1 cup dried red kidney beans

Kosher salt, as needed

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 large white onion, peeled and thinly sliced

3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

3 tablespoons minced, fresh cilantro, plus more for garnish

4 cups diced tomatoes (may use canned)

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1-1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper

4 cups chicken or vegetable broth

2 large tortillas (may use spinach-flavored) cut into strips

Cooking spray, as needed

Diced avocado, for garnish

Sour cream, for garnish (optional)

Soak the kidney beans in water for about 5 hours. Change water at least 3 or 4 times. Rinse beans and drain water. In a heavy pot, cook beans with 3 cups water, a little salt and the baking soda, over medium heat, uncovered, for 20 minutes.

In a heavy pot over medium heat, warm the oil. Add the onion and saute until just tender. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute, stirring continuously. Add the cilantro, turn off heat and let aromatics cool in pot for about 10 minutes.

Add aromatics and the tomatoes to a blender and puree until smooth. Transfer mixture back to pot, over medium heat. Add the cumin and cayenne and stir well. Add cooked beans, the broth and salt to taste. Once soup comes to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and cook for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. If soup is too thick, add more broth.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 250 degrees. Line a baking sheet with foil.

Place the tortilla strips on sheet and spritz them with cooking spray. Then sprinkle some salt on top. Bake for 10 minutes or until strips are crisp, rotating sheet halfway through and stirring occasionally. Remove from sheet and let tortilla strips cool.

Ladle soup into 6 bowls. Garnish with tortilla strips, the avocado, sour cream and more cilantro, if desired.

Makes 6 servings.

Farro, Feta and Roasted Chickpea Salad

2 cups cooked chickpeas (can use canned, drained chickpeas)

1 tablespoon olive oil

3/4 teaspoon salt, divided

1/8 teaspoon pepper

2 tablespoons fish sauce

3 tablespoons lime juice

3 tablespoons brown sugar

6 tablespoons (3 ounces) water

1 medium garlic clove, peeled and very thinly sliced

1 Thai chile, very thinly sliced (or serrano chile)

2 cups cooked farro or brown rice

6 ounces crumbled feta cheese

4 carrots, peeled and sliced

2 tablespoons chopped, fresh cilantro

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss the chickpeas in a bowl with the olive oil, 1/4 teaspoon of the salt and the pepper. Place on a baking sheet and roast in preheated oven until golden brown and crunchy, for about 30 minutes, occasionally shaking pan.

In a small bowl, combine the fish sauce, lime juice, brown sugar, water, garlic and chile. Whisk well. If too strong, add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time.

In a bowl, toss dressing with roasted chickpeas and the farro or rice, then divide among 4 plates, layering each plate with some of the feta, carrots and cilantro.

Alternatively, if transporting salad for lunch, portion dressing on bottom of 4 tall containers. Divide roasted chickpeas between each container, followed by layers of farro or rice, feta, carrots and cilantro. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Makes 4 servings.

— Recipe adapted by Tribune News Service from Ziploc.

Frittata Muffins for Any Grain

1-1/2 cups cooked quinoa, preferably red or black

2 cups fresh or frozen peas (do not thaw)

3/4 cup (3 ounces) shredded Grana Padano cheese, Parmesan or sharp cheddar, plus 1/4 cup finely grated, for sprinkling

1/2 cup finely chopped scallions (about 3)

1/2 cup loosely packed finely chopped herbs, such as a mixture of mint and parsley or dill and mint

1 to 2 teaspoons minced serrano chile, veins and seeds removed for less heat (optional)

7 large eggs

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly grounded black pepper

12 pitted salt-cured black Moroccan or green olives (optional)

Position a rack in center of oven and preheat to 400 degrees. Grease a standard 12-cup muffin pan, preferably nonstick, with olive oil or coat with cooking spray.

Place the quinoa, peas, 3/4 cup shredded cheese, scallions, herbs and chile in a medium bowl and combine well with a fork. (If grains are precooked, make sure to separate any clumps.) Divide equally among muffin cups, about 1/3 cup for each, filling until almost full.

Place the eggs in a large bowl and season with the 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper. (If using previously cooked salted grains, only use 1/4 teaspoon salt.) Whisk well until foamy, for about 30 seconds. Divide egg mixture into cups, using about 1/4 cup for each. Sprinkle each muffin with about 1 teaspoon finely grated cheese and gently press in 1 olive (if using).

Bake in preheated oven until frittata muffins puff up and turn light golden on top and golden-brown around edges, for about 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer pan to wire rack and cool for about 5 minutes. Using a knife or thin rubber spatula, carefully go around edges of each muffin to gently release from pan. Eat warm or at room temperature.

Makes 12 muffins.

Recipe from “Simply Ancient Grains,” by Maria Speck (Ten Speed Press, 2015).

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.