If Steve Sando hadn’t made it big growing heirloom beans, he sure had a lot to fall back on. There were the stints as a jazz DJ, a web designer, a clothing salesman. But he has made it big, and our stews, chilis, and cassoulets are the tastier and prettier for it. The 30-odd bean varieties he grows at his Napa, California farm, Rancho Gordo, have names as colorful as their striped and speckled skins—Yellow Indian Woman, Good Mother Stallard, Scarlet Runner—and both amateur cook and celebrity chef speak of them with ardor.
If it weren’t for Sando, they might never have been spoken at all. Some years back he sampled a Hopi Indian-cultivated pinto-type bean of such beauty and nuance that he was smitten. He planted that variety, along with several other indigenous beans, and a new career was harvested right along with them. One day, famed Napa chef Thomas Keller showed up at Sando’s farmer’s market stall and the rest, as they say, is history. Word spread among Bay Area chefs, then a retail website and cookbook, Heirloom Beans, followed.
Today, Rancho Gordo beans are featured at fine-dining meccas throughout the country, including Blue Hill at Stone Barns (630 Bedford Rd, Pocantico Hills 914-366-9600), where Chef Dan Barber often serves them alongside braised meats. “They complement the local shelling beans we preserve from summer,” he says. At least six varieties are served on his menu throughout fall and winter, and a few are sold retail at Blue Hill Café. “Each one adds its own distinct flavor and texture,” Barber notes. “They’re perfect for cooking, never turning to mush. And they’re beautiful.”
Barber is enamored of such varieties as Mayacoba, Yellow Eye, and Vacquero, and, though their traits may be singular, their pedigree is shared. All Sando’s beans hail from the Central Americas, and, unlike mass-market beans that can be stored for a decade in hot warehouses, Rancho Gordo’s are kept less than a year in climate-controlled environments. Currently, Sando’s website, ranchogordo.com, offers up to 30 bean varieties and he has extended the Rancho Gordo brand to elusive Mexican chiles and Native American dried corn products (also available at Blue Hill Café). Sando has written, “These indigenous ingredients should be familiar…but instead, our own food is considered exotic and sometimes in danger of being lost…” Rancho Gordo is dedicated to preventing that, but Sando is not all lofty visionary. “You also want to save them,” he says, “because they taste so good.”