11/04/2011 09:39 am ET | Updated Aug 31, 2012

Rice and Beans

Rice and beans aren't a seasonal dish; they're a staple, arguably one of the world's most important combinations, and you can (and should) eat them all year round. That said, in winter, when your produce options are limited, pantry staples become all the more important. Luckily, rice and beans are an endlessly variable combination, almost literally: There are so many varieties of rice, so many kinds of beans, and so many wonderful ways to season them that you'd be hard-pressed to get tired of rice and beans even if you cooked and ate them every day.

Crossing the Cultural Divide

Some form of rice and beans can be found in almost every traditional culture in the world. Usually, rice and beans have been peasant food, and their appeal is obvious to anyone on a budget or with limited time and resources: Dried beans and rice are still affordable, even compared to artificially inexpensive, government-subsidized processed food, junk food, and fast food.

Rice and beans also require almost no effort to make: whether you cook them together or separately, it's essentially a question of boiling water.

Nutritional Benefits of Rice and Beans

Rice and beans are also, famously, an excellent vegetarian source of protein, which is another reason they've traditionally been popular worldwide. Until recently, meat was far too rare and expensive to rely on as a steady protein source. Now that meat's disadvantages are becoming clear-the rate at which we eat it is bad not only for our health but also for the environment (not to mention the animals) -- rice and beans can regain their importance.

Cooking Rice and Beans

But though rice and beans can be vegetarian, they certainly don't have to be. Many traditional recipes contain meat for flavor. Hoppin' John, for example, the Southern dish of black-eyed peas and rice, is traditionally flavored with slab bacon or a ham hock. And a little sausage, bacon, or ham browned in a skillet before you add other ingredients can go a long way towards adding a meaty flavor to any rice and bean dish.

Eggs make another great addition to rice and beans. You can either fry or hard-boil eggs and serve them on top of rice and beans, or you can cook them right in the same pan as the beans and rice. When the rice is just about tender, make a few indentations in the top of the rice and beans, crack an egg into each, and bake in a hot oven just until the whites are firm; you want the yolks somewhat runny. This makes a great addition to a simple paella containing chickpeas, though you can substitute any other cooked or canned beans in this recipe.

Using Dried Beans

If you want to start from scratch, with dried beans, one of the best and most authentic recipes I know is Spanish-style black beans and rice, also known (perhaps somewhat politically incorrectly) as Moors and Christians. What makes this recipe special is the step of semi-puréeing the beans once they're tender, which allows their earthy flavor to permeate every grain of rice. Like paella, this dish is traditionally baked, but you can cook it over medium heat on the stovetop if you prefer; the flavor will be just as good.

Make These Rice and Beans Recipes

Chickpea and Brown Rice Paella with Eggs