Heirloom Beans by Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo

Book Review 2009

When we heard that Rancho Gordo was going to put out their very own cookbook, we were excited. Rancho Gordo singlehandedly changed the way we think about beans. Legumes went from mushy meal fill-ins to rich, robust, and mouthwatering stars of the show. We interviewed Rancho Gordo founder Steve Sando a couple years ago for The Kitchn, and his enthusiasm for heirloom beans and other New World foods is infectious; he just seems to be having so much fun with them.

But our love for heirloom beans isn't the only reason this book is notable. This book has one other direct connection to The Kitchn.

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Steve Sando's coauthor, Vanessa Barrington, is a former contributor to The Kitchn. We always loved her Bay Area-centric recipes and fresh approach to cooking, and when she moved on to other cookbook projects we were sad to see her go. (You can see all of Vanessa's posts here.)

Together, Steve and Vanessa have written a book that is a splendid vehicle for Rancho Gordo and other heirloom beans and the starring role they were meant to play. It's a colorful book, with photos on nearly every page, and a bright, appealing layout. The book is wider than it is tall, a good shape for laying out on the countertop, and it is a sturdy softback that stays open but won't get too beat up too quickly.

Well, on the other hand, we're not making a promise on that; we plan on having this cookbook open a lot in our kitchen! (And beans can be rather messy food; they splatter and smear. But I'm sure Steve won't mind if we get his book a little dirty.)

All right, the book is pretty, you say (and believe us, it is). But what about the recipes?

Well, let's start with the introduction, written by Thomas Keller. He uses Rancho Gordo beans regularly at The French Laundry and Per Se. He talks about how Rancho Gordo has affected many cooks who have passed through Keller's kitchens; many of them have incorporated the beans into their own restaurant menus.

This isn't difficult, after all, since, as Steve says, you just have to follow the bean when developing recipes. Heirloom beans have a depth of flavor that benefits most from simple recipes and preparation. Steve and Vanessa offer five chapters of recipes, with well-chosen recipes in each. They cover appetizers and snacks, soups, salads, side dishes and main dishes. (No desserts? They must have missed the bean brulee pie from our Bakeoff.)

The book takes the time to cover many bean basics, like how to make a basic pot of beans, how to render lard, good equipment for beans, and many side complements like roasted salsa verde and masa cakes.

This book is an appealing, friendly introduction to beans and New World cuisine, drawing heavily from Latin American cooking with a fresh, sunny California sensibility. For only $15 it's a very worthwhile investment to learn more about beans and some of the most nutritious yet comforting cooking around. We love this book, and we're so glad to see beans get a little more face time. In fact, we like this book so much that we're going to share three recipes from it over the next two weeks, starting with that delicious dish of red beans and polenta pictured above.

So stick around, start a pot of beans, and cook along with us as we focus on beans and Heirloom Beans during Eating Light month.

• Buy Heirloom Beans, $15 at Amazon

Related: Rancho Gordo New World Specialty Food

(Images: Sara Remington. Used by permission of Chronicle Books.)

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