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."
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
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.
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