Live Below the Line: The $1.50 Meal Challenge


I’m happy to be back in my own kitchen after a whirlwind trip to the West Coast and other fun adventures in new cookbook-launch land. In fact, just the day after I arrived home, I found myself in my kitchen—though not cooking just for one, but for friendly reporters from the Epoch Times’ new food website, EpochTaste. What a thrill to get to show ’em the lay of the land. But for now it’s back to the quick basics routine, and I’m equally thrilled to share a recipe for a great campaign called Live Below the Line. I was invited by The Hunger Project to make a meal that costs $1.50 or less, roughly that of a day’s worth of food for those living below poverty.

The $1.50 per meal challenge was posed to a number of bloggers, chefs, food writers, and more in order to create a wonderful spectrum of recipes that are practical, wholesome, and delicious—and frugal to the point of costing $1.50 or less per serving. Given that this formula has basically been this blog’s enduring motto, I was eager to participate.

There are many ways you could go with this request (seriously). To impress with the most unlikely yet economical, or to humble audiences with the austere? I didn’t want to choose either extreme, although toyed with ways to “jazz things up” quite a bit. But when it comes down to it, the words ringing in my mind when I first heard the task were: beans, greens, and eggs.

A savory white bean puree, subtly hinted with garlic

I obeyed that call. I kept my recipe simple, efficient and real. Fortunately, I don’t know what it’s like to live below the line. But I do know that I would eat this meal of white bean puree, seared greens and a poached egg any day, no matter who I was or what I was raking in. To me it’s a fine breakfast, lunch or dinner, and it covers a lot of bases in one gooey heap: protein, fiber and carbs from the beans, antioxidants and vitamins from the greens, sunny richness and fun from that undercooked egg yolk.

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Not trash or compost, but beet greens (a relative of Swiss chard)

Plus, it doesn’t matter which greens (or dry beans, either) you choose. You can find some of the healthiest stuff in the rough. I’m talking about the stems, stalks, and greens from bunches of other “stuff” in your crisper drawer, like healthy-looking beet, radish, turnip or carrot tops. Or, this time of year in particular, you can find young, tender dandelion greens in the wild—or your city park. Spring is a great time to find greens galore. Just plop a few seeds into a container of some sort and set it on your windowsill. You don’t even need to buy the seeds themselves, you can plant a pea or something. I am not kidding, because I have pea tendrils growing up my windowsill as I write. For this recipe’s example, I went with a bunch of beets’ greens, because they’re so mild and lovely like Swiss chard, and are related to them, too.

So I’m honored to throw this flexible, easy recipe into the ring for the $1.50 meal cookbook that The Hunger Project is putting together—and can’t wait to see what others serve up. Stay tuned for an update on that from The Hunger Project and find out how you can get involved, too. There are plenty of more (and much more creative) ways to address this challenge, without leaning on instant ramen or cereal. So let’s hear yours. And let’s eat, for a day if only, to walk in another’s footsteps.

White Bean Puree with Seared Greens and a Poached Egg
(makes 1 serving)

1/2 cup white beans, such as navy or cannellini, soaked overnight in at least 3 inches of water to cover
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
handful rough leafy greens, such as beet, radish and carrot tops or turnip greens
1 egg
1 teaspoon vinegar
salt and black pepper to taste

Rinse the soaked beans and cover with 3 inches of fresh water in a small pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a low simmer and cover. Cook until beans are tender (depending on their size), anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour. Drain, reserving 1 cup of its cooking liquid.

In a small pot, heat the olive oil and the garlic for about 30 seconds, until just sizzling. Add the beans and season with a pinch of salt and pepper. Add about half the reserved cooking liquid. Use an immersion blender or transfer to a food processor to puree the beans thoroughly. Add salt and pepper to taste, and adjust the consistency of the puree by adding as much of the remaining cooking liquid as you like.

Heat a large, heavy-bottomed or cast-iron skillet. Tear the greens to bite-size pieces. Once oil is very hot, add the greens along with a pinch of salt, working in batches, to ensure that most pieces just wilt and several of them are seared by direct contact with the pan. Set the cooked greens aside.

Bring a separate small pot of water to boil, and add the vinegar. Crack the egg into a small bowl. Turn off heat completely, and slowly drop the egg into the pot of water. Cover pot and let sit for about 5 minutes to poach. To serve, pour the bean puree in the bottom of a dish or bowl. Arrange the frizzled greens across, and top with the poached egg. Season with black pepper to taste and serve immediately.

Cost Calculator
(for 1 serving)

1 egg (at $3.49/dozen): $0.29
1/2 cup or 4 oz. dry white beans (at $2/ 1-lb or 16 oz bag): $0.50
handful of greens from a $2.99 bunch of beets: $0.25 (or less, given that these greens are often tossed away)
1 Tb olive oil, 1 tsp vinegar: $0.25
1 clove garlic: $0.10
Total: $1.39
Health Factor
Three brownie points: This recipe really hits a lot of sweet spots for nutrition: there are plenty of heart-healthy beans to fill you up without having a starch (and it’s gluten-free). Deep-green leaves of beets are rich in Vitamin K, Vitamin C and fiber. And you’ll get some essential fats, including omega-3 from the egg. If you don’t mind adding a little more richness go ahead and stir some butter or cream into the bean puree.
Green Factor

Eight maple leaves: It’s flexible enough to incorporate any seasonal greens you come across for this dish, and eggs and dry beans are available year-round.

3 Responses

  1. Crazy Chef

    I believe an essential point is being missed.

    I live in New York, work a good job and can cook all the fancy meals I want. I think about this stuff all the time and in fact, I actually do it because it’s just a good idea.

    It can even be done on a consistent basis.

    There’s only one problem though — it’s easy for me to do it. I’m highly talented at the juggling of an insane number of ingredients none of which will get wasted. I cook, I pickle, I store stuff, I re-use it, etc. I understand the science behind all of these processes.

    The most important point about $1.50 is that you don’t start from scratch at each point. You need to keep a lot of “balls in the air” and keep pushing forward. In fact, the counter-intuitive idea of “pushing forward” is to buy more stuff not less but keep everything going.

    None of this is within the grasp of the $1.50 crowd. They lack the time, energy, money and knowledge to do this. It’s sad but there it is.

    Not going to happen.

  2. Cathy Erway

    @CrazyChef Thanks for bringing up these important points. The balls in the air you’re speaking of bring me back to my days of “not eating out” as a strict rule VERY WELL. It takes a lot of thinking, I will not lie, to make this a practical not to mention viable routine. But that’s why I choose a recipe that clearly has some pre-thinking involved (e.g. soaking, cooking beans) and getting accustomed to thinking about the things that may be cast aside from food purchasing (e.g. greens from stems of other things) within an otherwise quick procedure. But then again, the challenges are huge and I have only visited them as a voluntary agent of not eating out for 2 years. But 2 years of “buying things” and “putting forward” teaches you pretty quickly how to make it all work and that’s what I’m hoping that people coming from all kinds of angles will find helpful.

  3. Amy Bui

    This is a pretty fun challenge. With the prices of produce skyrocketing, it’ll be hard for me to do this on a consistent basis. Love this post.

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