When you’re a student, money can be precious and the temptation to eat out can be overwhelming. Being able to cook simple, inexpensive, and satisfying meals at home can help you save some much needed cash.

Beans and rice is a time-honored student staple, but I think back when I first started living on my own, I didn’t realize they could be good. It usually ended up being a bowl of flavorless mush. This is, of course, because I was learning to cook beans and rice from bad recipes. Now, as an adult, having engaged in extensive bean cookery, I have a much better understanding of the humble bean.

Beans and rice provide a lot of nutrition for not very much money. Here’s two recipes, one for black beans and one for red rice, that are easy and tasty, and can be put together in an hour or so some lazy afternoon and stored for meals throughout the week. They’re tasty; I make them for myself fairly regularly, and what they lack in authenticity they make up for in simplicity.

Black beans:

  • 2 tbl cooking oil
  • 1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 jalapeno, chopped
  • two pinches whole cumin seed
  • 2 cans black beans, drained
  • salt to taste
Heat the oil in a pot. Add the onions, garlic, bell pepper and jalapeno. Cook over medium heat until soft, a few minutes. Add in two pinches of cumin seed and cook until fragrant. Add two cans of black beans, plus a quarter to a half cup of water. Cook for 20 to 30 minutes, until beans start to break down and a “refried beans” consistency is reached.

Red Rice:

  • 2 tbl cooking oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 1/2 jalapeno, chopped
  • 1 cup uncooked long grain rice
  • three tomatoes, pureed, or enough to make 1 3/4 cups of liquid
  • bouillon cube (chicken, or vegetable if you’re vegetarian)
  • Salt to taste
  • 2-3 tbl chopped cilantro
Heat the oil in a pot with a fitted lid. Add the onions, garlic, bell pepper, and jalapeno. Cook until soft. Add the rice, and cook until it takes on a slightly toasted look. Pour in the tomato puree, and dissolve the bouillon cube in the liquid. Bring to a boil, and cook for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand for 10 minutes, with lid on. Fluff rice; stir in chopped cilantro and salt.

They Work Together!

Do you see how well these work together? Similar ingredients, plus you can buy one onion, one bell pepper, and one jalapeno to make both! Each batch makes about four servings, maybe three if you’re a hearty eater. I like these together with some cheese on top and a little hot sauce. Especially nice during the winter. If you’re feeling rich, you can scoop it all up with some nice tortilla chips!

Pricing it Out

Let’s first make a list of everything we need, with prices. I’m pulling these prices from my local Fred Meyer via their app, so your prices may vary.
  • 1 onion $0.45
  • 1 green bell pepper $0.79
  • 4 cloves garlic $.50/head, so about $0.10 for this meal
  • 1 jalapeno pepper $0.20
  • 3 tomatoes $1.29
  • 2 cans black beans $2.00
  • 1 bouillon cube $1.79 for a jar of 25, so like $0.08?
  • 1 cup uncooked long grain rice $1.69 for 2 pounds, so about $0.43
  • 4 tbl cooking oil $2.29 for a 32 oz bottle, so about $0.15
  • cilantro $0.79 per bunch (I didn’t divide this out because it’s not like it’s going to keep until next time.)
  • whole cumin: you can get this in the latin aisle of most grocery stores for $1.99 and it’ll last you a year. Look for “comino entero” if the labeling is in spanish.
That’s $6.28 for a small pot of beans and a small pot of rice, which will yield 3-4 meals. Add cheese and sour cream, it’ll be a little more, but not a ton more. This stuff also freezes well, so if you have an afternoon off, make a couple batches and freeze them in snap top containers. (calculations do not include price of salt, if you don’t have any, steal some salt packets from a cafe on campus.) And they’re not difficult to make! If you can cook a pot of rice and use a can opener, you can make this! And perhaps most importantly, it’s real food.

Note: This review is not sponsored by Hello Fresh in any way.

I was lucky enough to receive a free box from meal delivery service Hello Fresh. I received three meals of two servings each, which was great because then I had dinner and leftovers for lunch the next day. They provided pre-selected meals, but allowed me to go in and make my own choices. I received the box on September seventeenth, which was pretty prompt. It was an intimidatingly large box, but what was inside were three paper bags sealed with labels for each meal, and three small packages of meat. The rest was packaging.

First Meal: Korean Beef Bibimbap.

I… ate this one before I decided to write this post. So, no picture.

Let me start off by saying that this meal was neither Korean nor bibimbap. It was a bowl of steamed rice with some fried ground beef and sauteed vegetables on top, with a soy based sauce. This may sound like a bibimbap, but it was missing some key elements, like pickled vegetables (kimchi, specifically) and the chile that is renowned in Korean cuisine, gochukaru. I used both of the packets of sriracha that were included with the ingredients, and it still tasted bland to me.

The ingredients seemed fresh and of good quality, with the exception of the green onion, which was wilted, and the ginger, which was so venerable as to be rubbery. I can understand that it would be hard to ship green onions without them aging a bit but in my experience, ginger is pretty hardy and if shipped fresh should have arrived in good condition.

The instructions for the meal were straight forward and easy to follow. Shaving the carrots into strips using a vegetable peeler (we have a Y-peeler at home) was time consuming and difficult, though it may have been easier with a straight peeler. While the steps in cooking the recipe weren’t difficult, it sure used a lot of dishes. Lots of little bowls that will all need to be washed, plus two pans. I wanted to cook the rice in the rice cooker but it was too small an amount to do so.

While neither Korean nor bibimbap, this meal once finished was tasty and filling, much better than a frozen dinner, but not nearly as good as actual Korean food. It probably feels more disappointing than it actually is because of that. Maybe better to call it an asian rice bowl.

I rate it 3/5.

Second Meal: Tuscan Sausage and Pepper Spaghetti.

This one came together much more easily, with way fewer bowls used. The ingredients seemed to be fresher in this bag, and it really only used two pans and a cutting board. When I saw it included crushed tomatoes as a part of the sauce I was hesitant because crushed tomatoes often taste overly salty or overly sweet to me. I plowed ahead anyway.

The ingredients included a packet labeled “Tuscan Heat Spice,” which seemed odd to me. You could just call it a Tuscan spice blend or something, especially since the finished meal wasn’t hot to me at all.

Tuscan Heat Spice.

Also, the instructions said to remove the sausage from the casings and throw the casings away, which brought to mind the question, why put them in casings at all? We all know you can buy bulk sausage; putting them in casings doesn’t do anything special to the sausage if you’re not cooking it in the casing and not curing or smoking the sausage, and it was already packaged in plastic, so it didn’t need further containment.

The meal came together easily, and was very tasty when it was finished. The peppers still had a little crispness to them, which was quite pleasing. The sausage and the sauce were both well seasoned, but the spices used in both seemed close to identical, leaving the finished dish somewhat one-note. The sausage was more notable for the difference in texture than a difference in flavor. Still, much better than canned spaghetti sauce, and easier than long cooking homemade tomato sauces.

This dish made a huge amount of food. It could easily have been three or four servings, especially with a side salad. I was stuffed after eating one serving as it stood.

I rate it 4/5.

Third Meal: Figgy Balsamic Pork.

I saved this one for last because I was a little overwhelmed by the idea of cooking a main and two sides in thirty-five minutes.

The meal kit came with two pieces of pork loin, which was nice; I wouldn’t have to portion them out myself. The green beans were nice and clean and fresh, and I didn’t have to pick any out for having soft spots. There were only three things to cut, rosemary, a single shallot, and the potatoes.

Putting the meal together went more smoothly than I expected. I got the potatoes in the oven, and it took me about ten minutes to get the green beans and the pork ready to go in, between tossing the beans in oil with salt and pepper, and searing the pieces of pork. Then another twelve minutes or so and the whole thing was done. I was amazed. So the recipe card is good, and the timing works out well. It’s clear that the recipes are being well tested before being sent out to the public, which is nice.

The roast potatoes were uninspiring, with a leathery surface where they browned and a dense but fully cooked interior. They didn’t brown up like the potatoes in the photos on the recipe card.

I used aluminum foil on both sheet pans for easier cleanup. I personally think this could have been cooked on one large sheet pan but I followed the instructions anyway.

The beans were tasty, though a little overcooked for my preference.

The pan sauce was cool because the process of making it teaches how to make a basic pan sauce, including adding aromatics and flavorful liquid, reducing, and mounting with butter. So while I’ve done that (many) times before, I could see how it would teach people with less experience in the kitchen a new skill, and I like that. I think everyone should learn to cook.

As for the finished product, the pork was cooked perfectly, with just a hint of pink on the inside. The pan sauce didn’t taste as much of fig as I’d hoped, and was a little sweeter than I normally prefer, but it was tasty.

I rate it 3/5.

In Conclusion.

My experience with Hello Fresh was a good one. I felt a little bit of pressure to get everything cooked before it spoiled, so I couldn’t get lazy and have an egg burrito instead. Despite the large amount of packaging, the brown bags that the ingredients are packaged in fit nicely in the fridge and it was easy to just pull out the one I was cooking.

I noticed that the bag has a little message about greenness on it:

I thought this was brilliant; it hints at another benefit of Hello Fresh that dovetails with the image of freshness communicated by the other branding materials. Though this message is a bit undercut by the copious amounts of packets and tiny bottles and jars that contained liquid ingredients, plus the plastic bags and boxes that contained some of the produce.

For those looking to pick up basic cooking skills, this would be a good way to learn. The instruction cards are clear and specific, and most importantly the instructions work.

For those with more money than time, I did find that these came together in around a half hour (with the exception of the bibimbap, with its time consuming carrot shaving), and the results were tasty and filling, each with some amount of vegetables, meats, and starches (though perhaps a bit heavy on the starch and light on the veggies, but that may just be the recipes I chose).

I did cancel my account with Hello Fresh, because the cost was around $60.00, including shipping, for two servings each of three meals. That comes out to around ten dollars a serving. If you’re someone who tends to eat out a lot, that’s a great deal, because it will save you money over going to a restaurant, and you’ll learn kitchen skills to boot. But for me, with experience in the kitchen and the time to shop for groceries, I can spend that $60.00 on a week’s worth of groceries, so it’s not such a bargain for me.