Do you listen to Aimee Mann? You should, she’s really good. I have spoken.

For the second installment of Cheap Ass Mondays, I bring you variation #999,999,998 on rice and beans: Mexican-ish stuffed peppers. Can you really have a feature called “Cheap Ass Mondays” without featuring rice and beans at least 30% of the time? I’m still new here, but I’m guessing you can’t.

These peppers appeared regularly on my table back in my vegetarian days (August 6th and 7th, 2000). Yes, I was once a vegetarian, for about four years. It will come as no surprise that sausage, my Scylla, and bacon, my Charybdis, wrought the downfall of that halcyon time. Although I’m now an unabashed carnivore and committed to eating meat in a more ethical, organic, sustainable way – although I’m not always successful – I would like to bring some vegetarian favorites back into rotation for the health of both wallet and gut.

I don’t know why hot, humid weather makes me want Mexican food; maybe I figure that as long as I’m already drenching through my clothing, I can’t get any more gross and I may as well go for the full-on sweat-fest and eat spicy food. I just know that I want it, and these peppers fit the bill. Fast, versatile, cheap, filling and tasty.

Bag ‘o yellow rice: $0.79. Onion and garlic, pantry staples.

I put some rice on to boil while I chopped garlic and onions and threw them in some olive oil to saute.

Yes, that is a bag of saffron rice. Because actual saffron tends not to lend itself well to cheap ass cooking, dontcha know. And I’m not sorry – do you see the price tag? These are the deals with the devil we make in the name of five dollar dinners.

If you wanted to be more-wholesome-than-thou, you could very easily make this with whatever rice you have in your pantry – or other grain; quinoa or farro would both be toothsome and tasty – seasoned with whatever spices you prefer and have around.* Me, I was interested not just in cost but in ease and speed, so I went with the bag. It’s not like it’s filled with baby seal eyes or anything, so I can’t feel too bad about it.

I’ve also made these using diced, roasted sweet potato, nixing the rice altogether, during an ill-advised “South Beach Diet” phase when rice was eeeevil.

Can ‘o beans and corn, $0.79 each.

I added black beans and corn to the softened and fragrant onion-garlic mix and seasoned simply with salt, pepper, cumin (constant ally of the black bean) and a little chili powder. It’s a symphony of brown and yellow!

Okay, I know, this part is maybe not the most attractive. What do you want from me? They’re fricking beans.

Again, if you had more time or energy, you could liven this up with some grill-charred fresh corn doused in lime and some good beans, maybe from Rancho Gordo.* More veggies would also be welcome, especially if they’re also grilled or roasted until nicely brown – mushrooms and zucchini are especially good here.

*This recommendation is total hearsay, I haven’t actually gotten around to placing an order and jumping on the Rancho Gordo bandwagon. I know they’re supposed to be incredible, but it seems incongruous to special order something as humble as a bean. But I’ll probably do it soon anyway, because I’m a yuppie bitch.

Half a $1.99 block of jalapeno “Mexican melting cheese”: $0.98. Cilantro: See last Monday.

What, exactly, is “Mexican melting cheese”? I buy it because it melts well (duh.) and has a much more pronounced jalapeno flavor than regular pepper jack, but I always pause for a moment and ponder its namelessness. Maybe I’ll just start calling it “eponymous.” Or since it’s Mexican, “¡epoñymous!”

Whatever the fuck it is, a bit of it stirred into the mix adds some nice heat and helps bind the filling together, while a handful of cilantro adds brightness and non-brown color. If you wanted to make this meal uber-cheap, vegan, or both, it wouldn’t be a sin to omit the cheese, although I find that omitting cheese is rarely, if ever, a good idea.

Big-ass green bell pepper: $1.33. And no, that’s not butter on top. You think you know me so well, don’t you?

The whole mess gets heaped into some cored, seeded peppers. You’ll end up with more filling than can be feasibly crammed into a single pepper without ready access to dimensions beyond the standard 3, so feel free to fill whatever other fill-able veggies you have around. I had some spare red peppers, so I pressed those into service. You can keep the peppers upright (just cut out the core without cutting the whole thing in half), which is traditional for a stuffed pepper, but I prefer the pepper-to-stuffing ratio you get with halved veggies.

Some stuffed pepper recipes calls for blanching the cored peppers prior to stuffing and baking them. I’ve done it that way and I’ve done it the lazy woman’s way, and I have to say that I prefer the lazy way. And not because I’m lazy – although I am – but because I like my peppers to stay a bit crunchy and fresh-tasting, and blanching then baking kills too much of the oomph. Baking alone cooks them through but retains their liveliness.

A sprinkling of additional cheese, and into the oven they go.

Total cost: $4.58, or $2.26 per serving.

Thirty minutes in the oven and then another few under the broiler – what’s the point of topping something with cheese if it’s not bubbly and brown? – and the peppers are ready to go. They’ll start to smell really good after 15 or 20 minutes, causing your dining partner to continually look over at the oven and ask “When are the peppers ready?” “Are they ready now?” Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The dollop of sour cream and sprinkling of hot sauce were not included in the budget. My blog, my prerogative. This meal is still cheap as the shit it will eventually become.*

If you’ve purchased a sufficiently big-ass pepper and stuffed it with filling, half a pepper per person is plenty. Heh, alliteration. I added a little of the sour cream that tried to kill my blender and a few splashes of Frank’s Red Hot for a little extra flavor-taste…

…and then ate dinner in under 2.5 minutes, because oh my god I’d forgotten how much I love these fucking peppers. The filling is like the inside of a really good bean burrito: spicy rice, earthy beans, sweet corn, bright cilantro, creamy cheese. Except instead of being rolled up in a boring ol’ tortilla, it’s heaped into a still-crunchy pepper that is just cooked enough to go down easy but still tastes of the garden, or factory farm, or whatever. All your food groups in one neat, delicious package.

And then I ate another half a pepper, because I’d also forgotten how filling they are and how the “painfully full” sensation can be a bit delayed with rice and beans before sneaking up on you WITH A VENGEANCE. I barely had room for some passionfruit ice cream, but I powered through.

*Probably sooner rather than later. Because, you know, beans.

Mexican Stuffed Peppers
serves 2
Recipe below will produce the peppers you see above, but you can vary it endlessly as described above.

1 large green bell pepper, cored, seeded and halved
2 c. cooked grain of your choosing; I used packaged yellow rice
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, diced
1 10 oz. can black beans, drained
1 10 oz can corn, drained
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. chili powder
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
handful of cilantro, chopped
5 oz. Mexican melting cheese or pepper jack, shredded
salt taste

Pre-heat your oven to 375.

Put the cooked rice, 4 ounces of the cheese, and the cilantro into a large bowl. Set aside while you prepare the rest of the filling.

Add the olive oil to a medium skillet and heat over medium heat. Add the onions and saute until just turning golden, 6-7 minutes; add the garlic and cook for another minute. Add the beans, corn, cumin, chili powder and cook for a few minutes to combine the flavors. Check the seasoning and adjust the salt.

Add the bean mixture to the rice, cheese and cilantro and stir to combine.

Lay the pepper halves in a baking dish and heap with stuffing. Sprinkle remaining cheese over the top. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until peppers are crisp-tender. Turn on the broiler for the last few minutes of cooking to brown the cheese, if you like.

Serve immediately. Sour cream, hot sauce and additional cilantro are nice accompaniments, as is fresh pico di gallo.