The Noblest Beans

"You can tell where someone is from by their attitude about beans," argues Steve Sando, owner/founder of Napa, Calif.-based Rancho Gordo New World Specialty Food.

"Californians and Southwesterners understand that you have a pot of beans like any other veg," Sando explains. "Eastcoasters are freaked out by beans and need a recipe. And if you're from the Midwest, there's zero bean culture."

A work of art: Rancho Gordo's Rio Zape beans before cooking. (Kim O'Donnel)

Generalizations aside, Sando knows of what he speaks; his life has been nothing but beans for the past 10 years. To be specific, Sando's business is heirloom beans; according to the USDA, the term heirloom plants refers to a) those planted from seeds that have been passed down for more than 50 years and b) open-pollinating, meaning that in addition to sowing seeds of a previous generation, they disperse naturally, by wind, rain and insects, unlike man-made hybrids.

The 24 varieties currently available on the Rancho Gordo Web site are indigenous to the Americas -- mostly Mexico, but also Central and South America -- and many, claims Sando, were on the verge of extinction, when he got started in the late 1990s. "I loved the idea of saving these beans from disappearing," says Sando. "So I started growing them."

Originally, Sando grew 20 varieties of beans on his three acres in Napa, dried and then sold them at various farmer's markets. It was at the Yountville, Calif., farm market, where the Vallarta bean, a "very obscure" greenish white bean from Mexico caught the attention of famed French Laundry chef Thomas Keller, "who loved it and now the bean is thriving."

He now leaves the farming to two growers in the Sacramento Delta region (also in northern California) and travels to Mexico twice a year looking for more beans. At this point, he's up to 30 varieties and has expanded the business to include heirloom amaranth and quinoa from a women's farm co-op in Bolivia as well as dried chiles and dried corn.

Those who live in the Bay area can see Sando's goods in living color every Saturday at the farmer's market at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza; for the rest of us, there's online ordering.

My inaugural order included four varieties - Rio Zape (reddish and speckled, resembling pintos) Ojo de Tigre (a real looker - butterscotch color with mahogany flecks), Black Nightfall (a black bean with smears of tabby-cat gray) and the aforementioned Vallarta.

Rio Zape was first up. I soaked them for about four hours, and I saved the soaking liquid, as it looked clean and smelled of the earth.

Here's how I cooked them:

Enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pot, a medium onion, finely chopped, about three cloves of garlic. I also diced half of a habanero chile.

When the veggies got soft, I added one teaspoon of dried oregano, 2 teaspoons of cumin and 1 teaspoon of ground coriander. I stirred until everything was coated, then added some beer -- Hitachino Nest Ginger Ale -- to keep things moist.

I added the beans, the soaking liquid and more of the beer, and brought up to a boil. I lowered the heat, covered the pot and kept an eye on liquid level, adding more beer as necessary. In the final 40 minutes of cooking, I added a can of Muir Glen fire-roasted tomatoes and salt.

The entire process took about three hours, a bit long, says Sando.

"Next time, do a hard boil for five minutes, then reduce heat," he recommends. "This will bring your cooking time closer to two hours."

I did not add salt up front, which Sando says I can do without worry, and I followed his suggested delay of adding acids until beans are soft. "You have to work really hard to screw up a pot of beans," Sando says, unless you add acids -- tomatoes, lime, sugar -- too early, which will toughen beans.

The results: Fudgy, creamy and smoky. I had never tasted beans this good. They were even better the next day. And Sando was right; you need to do very little to flavor the beans. I loved them without cheese or other doctoring condiments that I might have used in the past.

I gave the bag of Ojo de Tigre to Celebritologist and enthusiastic vegetarian Liz Kelly. Here's her report:

I added a chopped poblano pepper and a chopped orange bell pepper to the mirepoix (onions, celery, carrot).

After the beans and mirepoix had cooked for about 60 minutes I added a can of Muir Glen roasted tomatoes, cumin, a little chili powder, oregano powder, cinnamon and some kosher salt. No fixed amounts, but somewhere around a teaspoon each of everything except the chili powder (which I went lightly with because of my mom).

The beans were already starting to split after an hour of cooking so either I soaked too long (she soaked them for six hours) or these beans don't need to cook as long as some others. Unfortunately, they also lose their lovely markings while cooking, but the aroma is heavenly -- somewhere between smelling like peanuts and mushrooms.

I served them over long grain brown rice and topped them with the Rancho Gordo Gremalata Relish recipe -- which really added a kick to the beans and reminded this vegetarian of an old no-longer-edible favorite, Osso Bucco:

1 Large bunch of cilantro, 1 medium shallot, 2 cloves garlic, zest of 1 lemon?, juice of 1/2 lemon, pinch of salt?, splash of olive oil.

When asked about their flavor, Liz reported: "The Ojos were very meaty, if that makes sense -- meaty and mellow. Not overwhelming, very subtle and I guess kind of buttery in a weird way. Mellow, buttery, meaty -- that's it! And seriously, what a huge taste difference from canned beans."

For the Black Nightfall, I followed nearly the same recipe, but instead added a few chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, for some smoke. I found these a bit herbaceous, almost piney, and shared my observations with Sando. "Yeah, that's how people describe them. I find them a bit grainy as well."

What's so wild is that I could clearly differentiate the flavors and textures, something that is nearly impossible to do with bags of dried beans from the supermarket and even worse, canned beans. Everything tastes the same.

So, how fresh are Sando's beans? No more than a year old, he tells me. I've been trying to track down average age of a bag of beans before it goes to the supermarket, but my research is still in progress. I hope to have an update for you.

Finally, there's a Washington connection to Rancho Gordo: Sando's beans are on the menu at CityZen, the den of serious food in the Mandarin Oriental hotel Once upon a time, Chef Eric Ziebold was a sous chef at Keller's French Laundry, and Sando remembers Ziebold as the bridge between his beans and Keller's vision.

Although now on the other side of the country, Ziebold's loyalty to Rancho Gordo is stalwart. Currently, Ziebold is featuring the Rancho Gordo "Red Nightfalls," served with risotto and stewed veal cheeks. He says the color contrast is out of sight. Ziebold places a Rancho Gordo order quarterly, which means diners get a bean treat regardless of the time of year.

By Kim ODonnel |  April 12, 2007; 11:57 AM ET Food on the Web , Vegetarian/Vegan
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This looks very interesting! I have a typical North Eastern aversion to "American beans" (yeah, very generic I know) even though I love chickpeas and lentils cooked in a more Middle Eastern or African style. Your recipe looks like it might provide a good solution to this bean-hater though, the olive oil, onion, garlic and peppers sound divine. Here's my question: One of the things I never liked about the American style beans is the texture, kind of like chewing on grainy, pulpy paper left out in the rain until it desintigrates. Would you say that this texture is the result of beans from a can as opposed to lovingly cooked on the stove? Or am I doomed to being a hater for life?

One thing I do love is the Hitachino Nest Ginger Ale... my favorite HN beer! Your recipe is a good excuse to buy that magic elixir... :)

Posted by: Adams Morgan | April 12, 2007 1:42 PM

I love beans! I grew up in New England with canned baked beans, but have also spent time in Latin America, the South, and the Southwest. It's so helpful to have your guidelines for making up a pot of beans, particularly vegetarian and with Latin flavors, as I have not quite gotten the knack of it.

Posted by: Reine de Saba | April 12, 2007 2:15 PM


Glad you have discovered the glories of Steve's beans - they really are amazing. On your next to try list, make sure you put the Good Mother Stallards (you can almost drink the pot liquor straight) and the Yellow Indian Woman beans. I saute a dried chile de arbol or two in olive oil, add an onion (maybe some garlic, but not always), then cook the beans with their soaking liquid. Heavenly.

Keep the liquid the beans cook in - it's great to use either to make a pureed bean soup or as a replacement for stock or water in soups, braises, etc.

Posted by: Teri | April 12, 2007 3:03 PM

I'm a displaced East coaster who has discovered beans on the CA Central Coast. I'm experimenting with various light marinades (vinegars, oils, herbs, salts, peppers)and fresh veggies to bring out the flavors. It's a lot of fun, nutritious and a great substitute for starches, including even brown and wild rices, or even mixing with the various rices and lentils.

Posted by: CA Bean Lover | April 12, 2007 11:27 PM

I have never heard of an east coast aversion. I think that really is baloney. Anyone who cooks and has an open mind has no "aversion" to anything as basic as beas (that is like having an aversion to rice, or pasta, or flour).
I have been cooking them my whole life and I have never lived east of PA or south of DC. Same with everyoe in my family. And hasn't this guy ever heard of Navy bean soup? It is an east coast classic.

Posted by: Phila | April 13, 2007 9:45 AM

Kim, this is so great. I had heard of Rancho Gordo before, but this post inspired me to make a purchase. My southern husband, who loves lima beans (and butter beans--we debate whether they're the same thing or not!) will be in seventh heaven. Thanks again for a great post!

Posted by: gretchen | April 13, 2007 10:04 AM

Kim, if you have made the switch from canned beans to home cooked, I highly suggest investing in a pressure cooker. Saves a lot of time and fuel.

Posted by: ohio | April 13, 2007 12:27 PM

Southerners, not just southwesterner, but the Carolinas, Tennessee, Georgia, etc also know the about beans and aren't scared of them. They also tend to cook them, like everything else, with a hunk of fat back. At least my grandma did - LOL

Posted by: Ruby | April 13, 2007 1:03 PM

My favorite bean dish is cannelli beans with a dressing of good olive oil that is flavored with garlic, salt and pepper to taste served at room temperature.

Posted by: late to the party | April 13, 2007 7:45 PM

Now my younger daughter doesn't love beans, but my older daughter loves them, as I do. Last weekend I made chili for dinner. I haven't made it in a long time because neither daughter liked it. But this time after my older daughter said yuck, she tasted the chili and said, "Yum, this tastes like beans." She loves black beans and rice, and we also like a white bean dish I adapted from Lorna Sass's Tuscan Beans (from Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure). And while we prefer field peas from the farmer's market, we'll eat dried black eye peas in a pinch. In the fall, we'll buy any bean we see at the farmer's market. And I've lived in the metro DC area or the midwest all my life.

I second the other recommendation for a pressure cooker. I couldn't cook without it.

Posted by: east coaster with no aversion | April 13, 2007 10:22 PM

The story is pretty good, except for the petty slander of the rest of the country. I was raised in the midwest, and now live in the south, and I was raised on beans, and still have them just about as often as ever.
They are not as pretentious, as the authors beans, but also don't need as many even more pretentious additions to the pot.

Posted by: Sternberg | April 14, 2007 7:43 PM

In south Georgia, dried beans usually means lima beans, cooked (seasoned) with a ham bone or bacon. Dried black eyed peas are also a staple.
Southern Louisiana is home to red beans, cooked with onion, green pepper, garlic and served over white rice with the red pepper sauce on the table for personal seasoning.
With a Louisiana husband, I cook lots of red beans. I soak for 4-5 hours, pressure cook for 20 minutes after steams begins to be let off, then saute onion, green pepper and garlic to a tender crisp, and stir into the beans since I don't like the traditional limp onions, etc.
Can anyone think of a cuisine that does not include some dried bean, peas or other lentil? They balance wheat, rice, potato, and other starchy vegetarian protein sources. Mother nature spread survival foods around!

Posted by: Georgia | April 15, 2007 3:27 PM

Sorry about the dig. It didn't come out right. East Coasters like beans BUT they almost always want a recipe to go with them. That's closer to what I meant. In the west and southwest, a simple bowl of beans is understood with no recipes. I think this is the Italian influence in the East but I could be wrong. I'm sure there are many, many mid-Westerners who dig beans but they aren't in the majority and it's not a part of the food culture the way it is in other parts of the country. And when I meet a customer at the farmers market who just doesn't get what the beans are for, they are from the midwest. It's not a slam. It's an observation I've made after five years of selling at farmers markets, especially the ferry plaza market in San Francsico which sees a lot of tourists.

Posted by: Steve Sando | April 30, 2007 11:41 AM

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