Rancho Gordo beans have always been cool. Thomas Keller was one of the first chefs to pick them up at the farmers market, with many restaurants following over the years. The Napa-based company helped introduce heirloom beans to many eaters, in an array of colors, sizes, flavors, and textures. When the city shut down, it seemed like everyone started hoarding beans. And now that we’re all stuck at home and sitting on a stockpile, it’s an ideal moment to curl up with a bean book for some light bedtime reading and contemplate putting a pot on the back of the stove. Fortuitously, Rancho Gordo just published its latest cookbook. The Rancho Gordo Heirloom Bean Guide is a full guide to the humble pantry staple that reveals just how magical beans can truly be.
Steve Sando, founder and owner of Rancho Gordo, is the kind of fanatical author who can get anyone fired up about cooking beans. He happens to be a sourcing expert, who helped introduce Californians to the concept and nuances of heirloom beans, but better yet, he’s a cheerful and encouraging narrator. Worried about soaking and salting? Sando says calm down. “The main thing is that you’re cooking beans!” He self-describes as a “rotund gringo,” and it’s fun hearing about his travels to Mexico, when he cried tears of joy over the spicy Moro beans that made up one of the best meals of his life.
Cooking a pot of beans is a simple and satisfying cooking project, taking a humble ingredient and transforming it into a nourishing meal. It’s always fun to ask an expert about the alchemy of cooking a pot of beans because there are so many superstitions. Sando recommends using fresher beans, which won’t require long soaking, and begs readers to leave out the ham hocks to really taste the natural flavors. The book spins through 30 different heirloom types and folds them into recipes. Nutty cranberry beans release the best broth for soups, mild flageolet beans fold into salads, and creamy Marcella beans pile on top of toast. There are the beans that beg for beef, the beans that love pork, and then the best “pot beans,” which need almost nothing, like the wildly popular Eye of the Goat.
The cover is an unassuming olive green, and the photography of the dishes is definitely homegrown, all shot by Sando himself. But the most beautiful images are those of the beans themselves, in all their multi-colored and speckled glory, with detailed illustrations of each type. Much like a field guide, it’s fun to flip through and scrutinize the details, from the tiniest tepary to the honking Royal Corona. This writer is already stunned by the Vaqueros, which are as black-and-white spotted as a pinto pony. Time to put up a pot and unearth how they taste.