You could say that Steve Sando is full of beans, and that’s OK with him. This Napa Valley vegetable grower spends his days collecting heirloom seeds and growing delicious old-fashioned varieties of tomatoes, grains, chiles and beans. But his love is beans. And when it comes to heirloom beans, his Rancho Gordo specialty food company may well be the ultimate source, sparking a culinary revival in this simple staple.
You’ll find Sando’s beans on some of America’s best restaurant menus—stuffed into fat and tender ravioli, slathered on crostini toasts or puréed with fresh rosemary to serve with lamb at spots like Per Se in New York City, CityZen in Washington, D.C., and French Laundry in Yountville, Calif.
While it’s truly amazing to discover the variety of flavors and textures in these rare legumes, Sando says saving heirloom beans also protects genetic diversity and celebrates indigenous, heritage foods. Some of his beans are Native American varieties; others come from Mexico and points south. He scours the countryside for heirloom beans to test in field trials every year. He sells 30 varieties by mail order or internet and at San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza market, where his stall is a vibrant confetti of red, black, white, gold and mottled purple beauties. The difference in varieties is obvious to the eye, but the real surprise is on the tongue. Simmered with a little onion and garlic, these unique beans reveal their many nuances. Most change color as they cook. Some remain firm; others turn soft and starchy, collapsing into a rich, creamy “pot likker” sauce. Each has its own distinctive flavor, from fresh and “beany” to earthy, meaty and even nutty.
By Cinda Chavich, a food writer in Calgary, Alberta.