Meatless Monday: Value Added -- Slow Food USA Brings Back the Real Value Meal

Long before fast food's so-called value meal, we had real ones. We cooked with the ingredients at hand, with what we could get. For centuries, that which we now call local and seasonal is all anyone knew. The accent was often on beans -- cheap, nourishing and filling. How that morphed into fast food in just a couple generations is our loss and corporate food's gain.

As activist and author Raj Patel explains, the cheap bag of burgers that seems to feed your family comes at a killer cost, including labor abuse, environmental abuse and risk to our health, from heart disease to childhood obesity. Value? Not so much.

It's time to bring back the real value meal. Take Slow Food USA's
Value Meal Pledge. This Saturday, September 17, enjoy a real homemade value meal, one made for $5 or less per person. Make it, share it, participate in a value meal party, but get involved. How to do it? Cook.

I wish people wouldn't take such offense at this. I don't know anyone so rich these days that hiring a live-in cook is a practical consideration. Cooking is empowering, a basic life skill with real fringe benefits -- you'll never have to worry where your next meal is coming from. It's coming from the kitchen, it's coming from you. You have control over what you spend, what you put into your body and what you do to the environment. You can have your value and eat it, too. This is multitasking at its very best.

Slow Food is not about cooking as drudgery, it's recognizing the pleasure in food, in valuing food that's good, clean and fair.

So what kind of value meal should you cook? For real value, downshift from meat and focus on beans. It'll keep you well within your $5 limit, it worked for our forebears and as an Arabic saying goes, beans have satisfied even pharoahs. Dried beans are your most frugalista choice, and cook up with a meatier texture than canned, but whether you buy them prepared in a can or a dried in a bag, beans keep in the pantry till you want 'em and don't kill your budget.

Almost every culture has a soul-satisfying, protein-rich beany mainstay that feeds a crowd, be it frijoles refritos in Mexico, ful medammas in Egypt, frijoles negro in Cuba or chana masala, a spicy chickpea stew that's beloved street food in India.

There's a reason these dishes have been around for centuries. They sustain the body because they're made with ingredients that are humble but whole, nutritious and recognizable. They sustain the soul because they have a rich cultural and culinary history. They connect us to our past and to each other. They're dishes meant to be shared. There's the nourishment in a meal made fresh and shared together. There's real value, too.

Chana Masala

I've adapted this recipe from Madhur Jaffrey, cookbook author, actress and source for all things amazing and Indian. I've kept the spirit and spice of her recipe but streamlined the ingredients to keep things cheap and cheery. Amchoor, dried mango powder, is awesome, but lemon juice is cheaper, easier to come by and still provides a tart thrill.

Serve chana masala with brown basmati rice or with naan or chapati, gorgeous Indian flatbreads.

2 tablespoons canola or coconut oil
2 medium onions, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 jalapeno, minced (optional but terrific)
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon amchoor or the juice of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons paprika
2 tomatoes, chopped or 1 15-ounce can tomatoes
1 cinnamon stick
4 cups home-cooked chickpeas or 2 15-ounce cans chickpeas, plus reserved chickpea broth
sea salt to taste
optional garnish -- a handful fresh coriander, chopped coriander and/or a 2-inch piece of fresh ginger, chopped into matchsticks

Heat oil in a large soup pot over medium-high heat. Add minced onions and garlic. Add minced chili, if desired. Cook, stirring, for about 10 minutes, or until the vegetables soften and turn into a golden paste.

Stir in coriander, cumin, cayenne, turmeric and paprika.

Add tomatoes, cinnamon stick, amchoor or lemon juice.

Stir in chickpeas and 1/2 cup of chickpea broth or water. Reduce heat to low.

Cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove cover and give mixture a stir. The sauce should be thick enough to coat the chickpeas. If it seems too soupy, continue cooking, uncovered for another 5 minutes or so.

Season with sea salt to taste, garnish with chopped coriander or ginger. Or both.

Covered and refrigerated, chana masala keeps for several days and the flavors are even richer the day after you make it.

Serves 6 to 8.