“A well-prepared heirloom bean can outshine a piece of meat” – A conversation w. Steve Sando

Sunday, 29 November, 2015 By Lee Greene
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Steve Sando is a Warrior of Flavor. He is the founder and owner of Rancho Gordo, a Napa based food company with the mission to preserve New World flavors, and especially the many heirloom bean varieties. With a deep love for the Mexican culture and their foodways, Steve, who has authored three books on growing and cooking with beans, has been building Rancho Gordo into the leading source for heirloom beans, serving chefs and consumers directly via his online shop. Rancho Gordo beans are also available at selected specialty food retailers and in the two company-owned stores in Napa and the San Francisco Ferry Building. We met this October at the Heirloom Expo, where Steve was on a panel I was moderating  (a little bit star struck, I have to admit).

Make sure to read our conversations with other “Warriors of Flavors” and their work with heirlooms in our previous blogposts!

And cook this slow cooker recipe for Frijoles Charros with Steve’s heirloom beans. It is easy to prepare and delicious. It really shows off the quality of the heirloom beans; they are all dente and creamy the same time, not the mushy mess you get from commercial beans. And oh so flavorful. How does the saying to? The proof is in the heirloom bean stew!

LEE: Steve, you have no idea how excited I am to finally meet you. You are one of the godfathers of the heirloom movement, if it were not for pioneers like you, or Glenn Roberts at Anson Mills, we would probably not be were we are today. Do you feel a sense of pride when you see the heirloom movement growing?

STEVE: Heirloom varieties are special, because they often taste better. Simple as that. That is not only true for beans, but for any other fruit and vegetable. It is great to see consumers’ tastebuds reawakening and going for the more exciting tasting ingredients. But this development has many fathers, although I would love to take all the credit.

LEE: True, there are many players involved in the new interest in food and flavor experiences. I find chefs are so instrumental in creating awareness for varieties or breeds, because they have their customers walking in the door looking to be surprised. But most chefs rely on farmers and foragers like you to bring new ingredients to them…

STEVE: Sure. I worked with Thomas Keller at the French Laundry early on. That was quite something. You have to know, I started with this little garden farm when I turned 40. Initially I grew tomatoes and other veggies and would take them to the Farmers Market here in the Bay Area. Then I started beans to have something more distinct and available year round. That was quite the move. You could not give beans away if you tried back then. Beans were considered cheap food, not quality. One day Thomas Keller showed interest in the heirloom bean varieties I had grown. I saw his excitement and knew I was onto something. Chef Keller was instrumental. He created dishes that showcased the humble bean as the star. It was phenomenal.

LEE: That is what I always preach. Great ingredients do not need fancy recipes. Not in a home cooked meal, not in a restaurant dish and not in a packaged food. At Scrumptious Pantry we are all about creating classic condiments and preserved foods with unusual heirlooms as varieties because of that same reason. Why do we have all those additives and chemicals in so many of the packaged foods? Because the raw materials suck, pardon my French. If I use cranberries that have no nuanced flavor and no sweetness, it is up to the sugar and spices to give flavor to the product. When you use flavorful heirloom varieties, you start on such a higher level. No need for BS.

STEVE: I always recommend eating our heirloom beans in simple dishes – that is when their flavor really shines. Some salt, some olive oil, a sprinkle of herbs and spices. Most people think of beans as a cheap food, a peasant dish. In reality, it is the dish of kings! A well-prepared heirloom bean dish can easily outshine a mediocre piece of meat.

Ayocote Morado Bean (copyright Rancho Gordo)
Ayocote Morado Bean (copyright Rancho Gordo)

LEE: Oh, yes, just like a great tasting heirloom tomato in summer just needs a sprinkle of salt and maybe a drizzle of oil and lemon. You are totally right, but it requires a shift in the thinking of the consumer. How can we help facilitate that? I mean, we spend a lot of time at markets and in stores giving out samples and educating consumers about the better flavors of heirlooms. A bite and a flavor experience at a time. But this is a large country. Feeding samples is maybe not going to lead to heirloom domination.

STEVE: Well, I always say you got to find your tribe. And then it will grow from within. We have built a very loyal following and its our customers that love our products that will spread the word. Finding good ways to communicate with your tribe is important. For us, it is the newsletter that connects us to our customers. When we put one of our limited releases out in the newsletter, I can be pretty sure that we will sell out.

LEE: I assume limited releases are more common at the beginning of the “bringing back the bean process”? How long does it usually take you from finding a bean and including it into the crop plan to having stable supply? We have been growing the Beaver Dam Pepper, pretty much our signature heirloom, for six years now. And every season again we think that we have seen it all and figured it out, but then the season proves us wrong. Lets face it, there is a reason hybrid varieties became so popular.

STEVE: Heirloom beans thankfully are a little easier to cultivate than some of the heirloom vegetables you work with.

I work with a network of growers both in California, Mexico and Poland to grow our beans. Some we grow exclusively in Mexico, others we cultivate here in California. The hardest part to get US growers on board it to make them accept the lower yield. You can offer them more money per lb, so they have the same or better financial result per acre, but it still takes a lot of convincing. Agriculture in the US is all centered around yield. Changing that mindset is not easy. We build long term relationships, that is the key.

LEE: I would guess that you also have to change quite a bit of consumer perception. As you said, beans are a staple, considered a cheap food. Now here you are, growing heirloom varieties and charging a premium.

STEVE: You really can not compare heirloom beans to commodity beans. Heirlooms are a different league, it is about their nuanced flavors, what you can prepare with them in the kitchen. A commodity bean can never compete with that. The fact that they are unique, tell stories, have deep traditions and that you save biodiversity by supporting heirlooms are added benefits. As I said before, it is about finding your tribe and growing from there.

Red Nightfall Bean (copyright Rancho Gordo)
Red Nightfall Bean (copyright Rancho Gordo)

LEE: Imagine you had to choose one variety to pass on to the following generation. Which one would be your pick?

STEVE: I can not even consider that! I love them all, in different ways, to choose one.


Read this blog post for more on the history, benefits and stewards of the heirloom bean!

At Scrumptious Pantry we preserve the exciting flavors of rare heirloom fruit and vegetables and precious heirloom seeds. Delicious varieties put up in gourmet condiments and artisan preserves for you to enjoy at home! Because Heirloom is much bigger than just Heirloom tomatoes.

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