Cheap Eats:
Mexican Corn Stew

Many of us at some point or other in our lives heard the reprimand, "Don’t play with your food." While this command is certainly appropriate at the dinner table, I posit that it loses its validity as it moves away from that locus. In fact, I take great pleasure in playing with my food, and have showed countless friends how to enjoy this pursuit.

As an example: This month’s recipe uses onions, and when I started to dig out ingredients, I found that one onion had three inches of green sprouting from its point. Instead of throwing it out, I stuck it in water, and it has already grown a couple of inches more. In a few more days, I’ll take it outside and stick it in dirt (it works in a pot on my balcony, so you can do this even if you don’t have a yard). Onions have great flowers, and in the fall, you’ll have several more onions. Plus, if it’s outside (which is generally a good idea, because it smells a lot like an onion), it is likely to get pollinated by flower-hungry bees, and you’ll end up with lots of onion seeds, too.

An avocado, aside from being one of the most sublime fruits known (and incredibly good for you, too), comes with a free tree inside. Stick a couple of toothpicks in the sides of the huge seed, suspend it in a glass, big end down, with water coming half way up the seed, and in a few weeks you have the beginnings of a tree. I’ve grown a couple, and give them away when they get so big I can’t get out the door to my balcony.

The next time you have a fresh pineapple, slice the top off first, keeping the cluster of sharp leaves intact. Stick this in a pot, water well, and set in full sun. It will start to grow a pineapple plant, and if you have a long enough growing season, could even produce another pineapple. I do advise that you grow this outdoors, however — it needs lots of heat and sun, plus it is as successful as marigolds at attracting earwigs. But it is fun to watch it grow.

The seeds from citrus fruit can be grown into decorative trees. I have some friends who have a lemon tree their kids grew from seed, and it’s six feet tall now. It doesn’t get pollinated, since it’s indoors, so they don’t get fruit, but it has lovely flowers each spring.

For impressing small children, almost nothing is better than a sweet potato. It grows so quickly, you can almost watch it move. Just stick in a couple of toothpicks and suspend it in water, and before you know it, leafy vines will be snaking all over the place.

The following recipe is for a dish that is both vibrantly colorful and wonderfully flavorful. Don’t be intimidated by the four jalapeño peppers — if you remove the seeds and white membrane from inside the peppers, they hardly have any heat, especially when cooked a long time, so it’s a very mild dish. If you want it to be hot, however, leave the seeds in one or more of the jalapeños, or add some crushed red pepper or a dash of cayenne at the end of the cooking time.

Guacamole with tortilla chips would go well with this dish — and if you make your own guacamole, you’ll have an avocado seed to play with.

Mexican Corn Stew

1 cup dry pinto beans

1 Tbs. olive oil

1 cup chopped onion

5 cloves garlic, minced (approx. 1 Tbs., if you buy it chopped)

4 jalapeño peppers, seeded and chopped

½ cup thinly sliced carrots

½ cup thinly sliced celery

½ cup diced tomato (fresh or canned)

¼ cup minced cilantro leaves

1 48-oz can chicken broth (about 6 cups)

16-oz. package frozen corn kernels

2 tsp. ground cumin

2 tsp. ground coriander

Sort the beans.* Rinse beans, then place in large pot with four cups of water. Bring to the boil, then cover, remove from heat, and let sit for an hour. (This replaces letting them soak over night, which you can do if you prefer, and if you remember to set them out the night before.)

Drain the beans, then add the broth, cumin, and coriander. Bring to the boil, then cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 45 minutes.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat the olive oil. Sauté the onion and garlic until the onion is soft, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add jalapeños, carrots, and celery and cook for 3 minutes more. Add tomato (if you’re using fresh tomato, you may want to add a pinch of salt; if you’re using canned, don’t include the juice) and cilantro leaves, and sauté an additional minute.

After the beans have cooked the initial 45 minutes, add the sautéed vegetables to the pot, as well as the frozen corn. Cover pot and simmer for an additional 45 minutes, or until beans are tender. Adjust seasoning, if necessary, and enjoy.

Serves 6.

*(Sorting: This ubiquitous instruction for beans simply means shuffling through the beans to find and remove any bits of branch or rock or the odd blackened or moldy bean. You won’t find much, but it’s still always wise to check.)

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