Rancho Gordo grows and sells New World foods - beans, dried spices, chiles and corn. The beans are grown in Northern California from heirloom seeds that company founder Steve Sando scavenges in trips to Latin America. If you don't eat beans like these then you don't know what you're missing. They're utterly delicious, an easy source of protein.
Rancho Gordo sells exclusively heirloom beans, many with intriguing names like Mayacoba, Goat's Eye, and Black Calypso. I don't know very much about heirloom beans, so I called Steve to ask him some questions. Read on for the interview, along with a basic Rancho Gordo recipe...
What are heirloom beans?
There's different definitions - older styles of beans and such - but I see it as pure seeds. If you plant heirloom beans you'll get exactly the same kind of bean. Hybrids will either produce something else or actually be sterile.
Also, heirloom beans taste better, although they are harder to grow. The thing with American agriculture is it's been designed to make things easier for the grower, not necessarily a better product. So there's a lower yield on heirlooms. But the other reason they taste better is they're fresher - bags of beans in the grocery store can have been there for up to 10 years. Ours usually aren't older than a year - you really should use beans within 2 years.
How do you find heirloom beans?
Well, people are actually sending them to me now, which is amazing. But I go down to Mexico and Central America and look for them in the markets. The great thing of course about beans is they're actually seeds - you can plant them and get more beans. They're really great for an apartment - they often have beautiful vines.
Wait - so I could buy your beans and then plant them in my apartment?
Totally. They're the easiest thing to plant, and they attract hummingbirds too. In England people actually grow the scarlet runner beans for their flowers, and I found something new - you can eat the bean flowers, like squash blossoms! They're great chopped up and fried, like for tortilla stuffing. They taste a little bit like bean sprouts.
So how did you get into preserving heirloom beans?
I was shopping in a grocery store in Napa, California, where I live, and I wanted to make salsa. But all they had were hothouse tomatoes from Holland, which just sent me through the roof. Here we are in Napa, California, and all we have are hothouse tomatoes! So I started growing my own and selling them at the farmers market. But those are at their best just a couple months out of the year, so I tried beans to get me through. Then I got started on heirlooms, which were just so interesting.
Why should people look for heirlooms?
I feel like it's un-American not to know what our food is - we can do this ourselves. This is "the Americas" - not just the United States and Mexico and Canada. This is the New World and this is our food. Beans and tomatoes and peppers weren't known until the New World was discovered.
So by using heirlooms you're preserving that culture, as well as flavor. The best way to preserve culture is to taste it and see that it's so much better. I'm just amazed at the restaurants that are carrying us now - Per Se and the French Laundry. Chefs are a little taken aback at the variety - we have to teach people about them.
Cooking Dried Rancho Gordo Beans
A good bean to start with is Good Mother Stallard; it's their "you'll be back" bean, with a delicious pot liquor and complex aromatic flavors. Good Mother Stallards are so good on their own you don't need to do much.
Put the beans to soak in the morning - since the beans are fresher you don't have to soak them overnight. Make sure all the beans are submerged with at least an inch of water above.
A few hours before you want to eat, sauté a little minced garlic and onion in some olive oil until soft and golden. Add the beans and their soaking liquid then bring it all to a hard boil for five minutes. Turn the heat as low as possible until the liquid is barely simmering. Cover tightly and cook for 2-3 hours, checking the water level occasionally. If it gets low add hot water from a teakettle. When they're cooked through add salt and pepper and garnish with a little fresh Parmesan and Italian parsley if desired. These keep well.
(Runner beans photo: Steve Sando)