Who can turn down a good challenge? When Slow Food USA announced the $5 Meal Challenge to prove that “slow food shouldn’t cost more than fast food,” I was game. Right away, Shelley made plans to host a potluck and ground rules were set. To keep the total cost of each meal at or below $5, and assuming there would be starters, mains, sides, and desserts brought to the potluck, each serving needed to be $1.25 per person or less for a four course meal. That meant that for a dish intended to serve ten people, the total ingredient cost had to be $12.50 or less. Fortunately for me, I had just received a review copy of Quick-Fix Vegan by Robin Robertson which will be released on October 4th. When I want healthy, affordable, slow food, I turn to local, sustainable, and mostly plant-based dishes, so this book arrived right on time. Every dish in the book from starters to pasta to soups, sandwiches, salads, baked dishes, and desserts, can be on the table quickly. There are also great tips for how to stock your pantry and for preparing dishes in advance and then just baking them right before mealtime. A few of those quick dishes include coconut-curry chickpeas and cauliflower, spicy smoked portobello tacos, Indonesian satay sandwiches with peanut sauce, and ginger-cashew chocolate truffles. For the $5 Meal Challenge, the cajun-spiced dirty rice sounded like a healthy, flavorful dish to easily feed a crowd.
Now, I have to make a confession. This book’s intention is to offer meals that can be made with a minimum of fuss, but in the interest of keeping the cost down, I took a couple of extra steps. I bought organic, dried, red beans and cooked them myself, and I made my own vegetable broth. However, by doing those two steps in advance, actually the preparing the rice dish was quick and easy. I used local onions, bell peppers, and mushrooms, and the other ingredients were all organic, and the total cost per serving came in just a cent or two under $1.25. The classic Cajun trinity of bell pepper, onion, and celery was cooked first and created a base layer of flavor. Garlic, mushrooms, and a Cajun spice blend were added next and allowed to cook. Last, brown rice, red beans, vegetable broth, and salt and pepper were added. The mixture was transferred to a baking dish, and it was baked for about an hour.
Traditional Cajun dirty rice includes sausage and/or chicken giblets in rice cooked with chicken stock. Here, the ‘dirtiness’ came from beans and mushrooms, and the rice was cooked with vegetable broth. When a couple of the omnivore potluck attendees mentioned they wouldn’t have known the dish was vegan if I hadn’t told them, I took that as high praise. The aromatics and Cajun spice mix flavored the rice really well, and this is a dish that just gets better as it sits, so it’s perfectly suited to a potluck.
Cajun-spiced Dirty Rice
Re-printed from Quick-Fix Vegan with publisher’s permission
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, minced
1 celery rib, minced
1 green bell pepper, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
8 ounces mushrooms, finely chopped
2 teaspoons Cajun spice blend
1 cup quick-cooking brown rice
1 ½ cups red beans or 1 (15 ounce) can, rinsed and drained
2 cups vegetable broth
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly oil a three-quart baking dish and set aside. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, celery, and bell pepper. Cover and cook to soften, five minutes. Add the garlic, mushrooms, and Cajun spice blend. Stir to combine and cook until softened, two minutes. Transfer the mixture to the prepared baking dish. Stir in the rice, beans, broth, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover tightly and cook in the oven until the rice is tender, about 50 minutes. Serve hot.