heirloom beans, with steve sando of rancho gordo

rancho_gordo-1040208STEVE SANDO and I agree that the saying “a hill of beans”–as in, something is of little or no importance at all–gives a very mistaken impression about our mutually favorite food. We’re both more Jack-in-the-Beanstalk types, as in seeing beans as positively magical and having vast potential.

Steve has a passionate interest in New World foods, the bean being the centerpiece of his collection, and is founder of Rancho Gordo specialty food company, based in Napa, California. He’s also the author of three books, including “Supper at Rancho Gordo,” where beans play a starring role.

In Steve’s hunt to extend the bean palette far beyond the pedestrian kidney, navy, black, he has uncovered and showcased many astonishing heirloom beans. He’s credited with elevating the lowly bean’s culinary status beyond just “health food”—and with fostering preservation of distinctive oldtime varieties, one more beautiful (like ‘Red Nightfall,’ top of page) and delicious than the next.

On my public-radio show, we talked about exceptional bean varieties, how to cook beans, making refrieds without the lard, and more. Read along as you listen to the July 20, 2015 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

And remember, gardeners: All Rancho Gordo’s dry beans packaged by the pound for eating would make good seeds, too—since that’s what dried beans are (presuming they’re not as old as some on the grocery-store shelves).


my q&a on beans, with steve sando




Q. I think I read that it was the growing of tomato plants that actually indirectly got you started on your bean adventure.

A. Yes, I have no ag background, no home gardening—nothing. But I was a frustrated home cook. It was August, and I was here in Napa, and the tomatoes were all from Holland, and they were those awful pink hothouse tomatoes.

It’s Napa—I’m in this magnificent agricultural place—and I thought: Something isn’t making sense here. So I started growing them, and I tend not to have a casual interest in anything. If something’s valid, I go all in, so I had something like 40 varieties of tomatoes that first year. It was very fun.

Unless you’re doing ‘Early Girl’—tomatoes don’t really ripen here until late August, so I thought let’s just do beans, and that will fill in the gap till the tomatoes ripen.

Q. Did you start selling at the farmers’ market first?

A. Yes, I had an erroneous thought that I was a good farmer, and thought this was something fun to do. I’ll just say I’m really good at the beginning of the season, like: I have conquered nature; I’m in control! And then by the end of the season it like: Oh, can we get this thing over with? I have a short attention span. [Laughter.]

Q. Happens to the best of us, Steve.

A. But this year’s going to be different; I’ll lay it out in a way that I won’t have to weed it…I have this thought every year.

So yes, I started selling at the farmers’ market. At first they wouldn’t let me here at the Napa market because they thought the beans were kind of weird, believe it or not. So I had to go up to the one that was considered not so good up in Yountville, a little farther north, but that’s where French Laundry restaurant is. Even though it’s a little more touristy and people were buying lavender and cut flowers, Thomas Keller of The French Laundry’s sous chef came by, and said, “These are really great.”  And the next week Thomas Keller came by, and he leaned in and said, “What you’re doing is very important,” about the heirloom beans.

And I said, “I think so, too,” but I mean, nobody was buying them…

Q. Very important, and not very profitable. [Laughter.] How long have you been selling them now through the Rancho Gordo catalog?

A. I think started growing them in 2000 or 2001, and then the next year I did the farmers’ market. But it really was 2002 or 2003 that I started to get really serious. We were first just selling at the markets, and I’d been a web designer among one of my many things, and thought we’d try online sales. I didn’t think it was a great idea, but it’s been obviously what allowed us to sell all over the country.

Now we grow 25 varieties domestically—all on the West Coast—and are importing about 10 varieties from small farmers in Mexico.

Q. Where do you find the beans? With heirlooms, it’s like there is a grail variety we really want to grow or find seed for that we might have read about in a historic book, and want to taste. Are there ones you’re looking for that you haven’t captured?

A. I was an Italophile—obsessed with Italy—and in Tuscany there is a great bean called Zolfini (or Zolfino if it’s plural). It was a small white bean, and the first time I ate it I thought, “What is the big deal?” because they will go on and on about this bean.

They said, “No, no, no—you put it on crostini—you mash it a tiny bit with a fork and you drizzle your very best olive oil on it. As an American who loves exotic recipes, I thought that was the most stupid and boring thing, but then I ate it and I almost cried, it was so delicious. It just melts in your mouth, and this bean really is worth all the pain.

It needs to apparently grow on the riverbanks of the Arno or something—we’ve tried it and we can’t replicate it—though I am going to keep trying.

One really nice thing: I was going through the orders one day and there was an order from Marcella Hazan, and I thought, “No way! This can’t possibly be.” But it was.

We became email buddies. With my love of Italy, I have a vast knowledge of Italian pop music from the 1960s, and so we would go back and forth with that. At one point, I asked, “What’s your favorite bean that you miss from Italy?” thinking she will say Zolfini, or I think she’s from Venice, and there is a particular cranberry bean they love there.

But she said without hesitation that it was called Sorano. We looked and actually found seed stock for it. The first year we grew it, it didn’t really do well, and we were only able to keep seed stock, but the second year it was really going great. But right as we harvest, unfortunately she died.

We had kept up, and she was excited about it, so after she died I asked Victor, her husband, if she wouldn’t mind if here in the United States we marketed it as a Marcella. I know she was totally against writing book blurbs, or endorsements, but he thought she’d be flattered by having a bean named after her.

rancho_gordo-0078Q. You said, “cranberry bean” [above] and there are a lot of terms like tepary bean, and runner bean. Let’s just go through some of them—like the tepary bean I’ve read about being ancient, and so drought-resistant. From an eater’s point of view, what should we be more knowledgeable about?

A. Cranberry’s a big word, almost like saying, “red tomato.” Within that there is ‘Tongues of Fire,’ and ‘Borlotti,’ and even within ‘Borlotti’ depending where you are in Italy, it’s a different bean. The thinking is they actually came from Colombia, and they all tend to be velvety. They have different thicknesses of skin, and they produce an excellent bean broth—which is why they’re great for pasta e fagioli and minestrone soups.  They’re just really excellent on their own, too.

Q. And runner beans, for instance?

A. This is where it gets a little confusing. The cranberries are Phaseolus vulgaris, the common bean, which is a great group but pretty broad. Runner beans are Phaseolus coccineus—so it’s a different plant. Within P. vulgaris, you have bush beans and pole beans, but P. coccineus—the runner beans—actually shoot off runners, but even though they’re pole-like, they’re not true pole beans.

Those tend to be really big, and you can eat them as broad beans when they’re green, or as shelling beans when they’re more mature. But once they’ve dried, they tend to be bigger and somewhat starchy. You can push them just a little beyond the starchy point and suddenly they’re creamy, and melt in your mouth.

Q. A lot of people who grow ‘Scarlet Runner’ beans, speaking of those, don’t know that if they let that big teepee of vines wither, and the beans dry in the pods and collect them, that they’re delicious and beautiful beans for eating. They might be growing it for the hummingbirds—but not the crop.

What about flageolet [below]?

rancho_gordo-112A. Flageolet is a French-bred greenish-white bean.  We used to use it here in this country when making cassoulet, thinking it was the best thing. It’s classically great with lamb. Really great roasted tomatoes, tons of garlic and flageolet is like a holiday in my book. It holds it shape, but then falls apart in your mouth.

Q. As opposed to falling apart in the pot. [Laughter.]

A. There are some, like ‘Tiger’s Eye,’ this beautiful orange bean, with incredible markings that are tiger-like—and it’s basically pudding, no matter what you do. Good refried beans, but the skin is so thin it’s not versatile in the kitchen.

Q. You’ve mentioned bean broth, and refried beans, and how some beans have better broth than another. Let’s talking about cooking beans. Are you a soaker, or not a soaker—that’s the big debate among cooks. 

A. And whatever you do, you’ll tick someone off. Bean cookers—people who cook beans—are like martini drinkers: Their way is the way, and they’re not going to even argue about it.

I tend to have been rigid, and now I think as long as you’re cooking, you’re ahead of the game. I tend not to soak our beans because I know they’re fresh, within a year or at most two—mostly current-crop beans. If I went to the grocery store, and got a dusty old bag, I’d probably soak those.

Q. You just said a year or two—the ones in the grocery stores might be older than that?

A. Yes, there’s sort of a shell game when they release them. That’s one of the advantages: An heirloom bean isn’t guaranteed to be fresher, but anyone who cares enough to grow heirlooms probably is also concerned about the flavor.

Q. And also probably isn’t growing them by the mega-ton.

So do we rinse beans before cooking?

A. Always rinse them and check for stones, even if they’re been triple-cleaned, because about 95 percent of the cleaning actually happens in the field. It’s really great: The plant is green, and it’s cut off at the roots. There’s this Rube Goldberg machine that picks the plant up, takes it to a conveyor belt and shakes the heck out of it, separating the pod from the seed. The pod goes right back into the soil as green manure; there’s a blade that chops it up. It’s really a clever green thing.

But as much as they keep cleaning them, there’s nothing worse than finding a dirt clod in your beans that have been cooked.

I’m a confirmed omnivore, but I don’t think you can cook beans in a better way than vegan. You don’t need meat when you have these heirloom beans, or it’s going to become a pork dish or a chicken dish.

In the bottom of the pot—I’m lazy, and don’t want to clean a lot of pots—I sauté onion and garlic. If I’m doing something more classically French, I add celery and carrot. I add the beans, and cover them by about 2 inches with water, and that’s it.

I bring to a really hard boil for about 15 minutes—that’s the key, and lets the beans know you’re in charge.

Q. Domination, right?

A. It is. You get it where you can. In the rest of life, I think we’re getting beat up, but there’s one chance you get: to beat up the beans.

After the 15 minutes, I turn it down as low as it will go, and leave them alone. For our beans that tend to be about a year old, I budget 2 hours, but it’s usually about an hour and a half.

Again, if you were to add pork, it just becomes a pork dish, and with the heirlooms, this one’s velvety, this one’s creamy. You’re going to lose all the nuances. You should eat what you want, but when you’re cooking beans, I think this is the best way. Save your ham hock or chicken stock for something else.

Q. I like to put a bay leaf in, too, sometimes—it’s distinctive, but not overpowering.

A. Georgeanne Brennan, who was so important in bringing so many of the seeds in from Europe to the State in the early 80s, and is a great cookbook author: She cooks only with bay leaf, because she wants all the flavors really distinct. So even if she’s doing a sofrito, or even if she’s cooking meat, she does all the components at the end. I know the inclination is you want all the flavors to meld together, but sometimes you want them sharp and distinct. That’s her theory.

Q. So when you’re done, you have the bean broth—or the liquor, as I think it is also called.

A. Yes: pot liquor, although people from Texas will tell you that has to be greens. But pot liquor is really any vegetable broth.

Q. Or we can call it caldo

A. Yes, in Mexico you’d say caldo—and in Italy, I don’t know what we call it, so we’ll have to find out. But it’s like a free gift—a gift with purchase. You make these beans, and you have this incredible thing that can be the base for soups, or you can poach eggs in it—it’s the greatest.

Q. I love seeing the poached eggs in bean broth on your website [and in the video, above]—and other beans for breakfast as well.

A. Pretty much every day here. And that’s one of the advantages of cooking your own versus canned—when you’re encouraged to rinse them.

Q. You get this extra thing that can be an ingredient. A little of it could go into making some refried beans, couldn’t it?

A. Or a lot of it could.

ranchogordo-1-13Q. I saw this device on your website for mashing beans called a machacadora—which reminded me of a wooden tool handed down to me by my grandmother, but I think she used it for something else, like pounding cutlets.

How do we make refrieds, without the lard?

A. Classically you fry onions in lard, and when they’re really soft you add the beans, and in a cast-iron skillet you’d mash them and the whole thing is incorporated.

I’m an omnivore, as I said—but I think you don’t have to do it. You can just do bean broth, and some onions that are softened if you want. This machacadora [above] is this wooden thing that you just use to pound them. If you like super-creamy, you can use an immersion blender.

Especially if you’re doing a layer of beans in a sandwich, or stuffing a pepper—like chile rellenos with refried beans and cheese is great—you don’t really need to bother with the lard. It seems silly to me.

With this tool you can get an interesting texture, and you can also use it for guacamole—an of course I’m so trendy I’m fermenting everything, and I use it as a pounder for my sauerkraut when I’m making that.

Q. [Laughter.] It’s the multi-purpose tool in your kitchen.

A. And it’s funny because you go to Mexico and many, many Mexicans have never heard of a machacadora and don’t know what this tool is. The Mexicans making it are in southern Michoacan, which is a state plagued by a lot of problems right now. They are getting such a kick that we sell out of this tool—like, “What are these gringos doing with this thing?” It’s really sweet.

Q. And this is a recipe—or more accurately, a technique—so if I like really creamy refrieds, I can pulverize everything, or you can just mash a portion of the beans and a little liquid, then mix in the rest of the beans whole, so it’s like smooth or chunky. It’s like the difference in peanut-butter preferences.

A. If you wanted a more indulgent version—and don’t ever tell the Mexicans this—I love sautéing the onions in olive oil, until they’re really soft, then adding the beans. But it’s not at all traditional.

rancho_gordo-6184-1Q. I want to talk about some bean varieties—and I have to admit the photos get me all the time. Like a favorite: ‘Vaquero’ [above], which looks like a Dalmatian dog, white with black spots. Or ‘Christmas Lima,’ that’s such a beautiful color. Any favorites of yours?

A. There’s one called ‘Moro’ [below] as in Moorish, and it almost looks like a rattlesnake skin. I’m sure that someone’s abusing children who have to hand-paint these things…

rancho_gordo-262Q. It couldn’t have happened in nature, right? So intricate.

A. I think the beans go from green pods to white beans and as they dry, the white beans turn these wonderful colors to tell the farmers, “Save me, I’m pretty.” That’s my theory—because a lot of them have these incredible colors, and ‘Moro’ is one of them.

It’s somewhere between a black bean and a pinto, and it has this great bean broth, and it’s a little bit fudgy in texture.

rancho_gordo-242Q. ‘Yellow Indian Woman’ [above].

A. It’s also known as ‘Buckeye’ sometimes, and it’s a really great short-season bean. Sometimes we can even get two seasons out of it, if we plant early. It’s like a yellow black bean. Everything you love about black beans is in this bean, but it’s yellow.

baked-beans-in-bowlQ. What do you like when you make baked beans?

A. Classically, people say ‘Yellow Eye,’ or a cranberry bean. But I’m a true Californian and would look to you for baked-bean advice—and you have a famous baked-bean recipe.

Q. I did make them with Martha Stewart on her show [my recipe]. I love ‘Yellow Eye’ beans, by the way—and they’re beautiful.

A. And ‘Yellow Eye’ [below] goes from the classic meat-heavy baked beans, to use in a delicious vegan chowder made by a vegan restaurant that was here in Napa, called Ubuntu.

rancho_gordo-1149Q. At Rancho Gordo, your chile powder is unlike anything I have tasted elsewhere, and now I see there are grains and more, too.

A. Things that are indigenous to the New World is my focus. A lot of us probably come from immigrant families, but we are staying. [Laughter.] Rather than constantly replicating Europe—it seems to me we should know what are food here is. It doesn’t mean we have to give up the European things, but it’s a non-political way to be neighborly with the Americas—and it’s delicious.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the July 20, 2015 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

enter to win a sampler of rancho gordo beans

rancho-gordo-desert-islandI’LL BUY A sampler pack of Rancho Gordo beans for a lucky reader–five varieties of heirlooms, a pound apiece. All you have to do is comment in the box at the very bottom of the page, below the last reader comment, answering this question:

What beans figure into your garden plot, if any, and how often in a week do you include beans in your diet–eaten fresh or cooked up from dried?

I’m with Steve Sando: beans daily (and yes, often for breakfast). This year, besides the usual green- and purple-, and yellow-podded types for fresh eating, I’m growing some teepees of dry beans, too, plus ‘Scarlet Runner,’ whose beans I enjoy dry after the hummingbirds have at the flowers–which by the way are edible, too.

Feeling shy, or no answer? Say something like, “Count me in,” and I will, but an answer is much preferred. I’ll pick a winner (US only), and notify him or her by email after entries close at midnight Sunday, July 26. Good luck to all.

dry-bean growing, and bean recipes:

(Photos except my baked beans from Rancho Gordo website, used with permission.)

  1. JessB says:

    We eat beans every other week or so. My two and four year old love them but don’t want to OD them on beans! LOL I grew Scarlet Runners for the first time this year. Soooo beautiful. I also have French climbing, Christmas, Brockton horticulture, calypso, Vermont cranberry, and a few others going. Love beans!!

  2. Mary Hinson says:

    I LOVE Rancho Gordo beans. We eat them a couple of times a week. Mayocoba and Good Mother Stallard are my favorites. All of the ingredients Rancho Gordo sells are premium. I use his salt exclusively to cook my beans and have every book Steve has written.

    I grew Scarlet Runner beans once, but don’t currently have beans growing. Next season I will.

  3. naomi says:

    Beautiful beans! Please count me in. You do, I’ll send you one of my large lima beans (porcelain, but they do sometimes fool people).

  4. Janet SG says:

    My husband and I are children of immigrants. Beans were a big part of our diet growing up and they still are as we eat beans 4-5 times/week.
    Do not have beans in our garden and don’t really know why. We used assorted dry beans for our dishes: black, pinto, black eye peas, lentils and garbanzos.
    Rancho Gordo assorted varieties would be a real treat!

  5. Dena says:

    Beans… a variety of both beans & ways are definitely enjoyed by me but I also share them both fresh in pod or dried beans cooked with my companion parrots too..,

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