What rare wines are to some, heirloom beans are to Rancho Gordo's Steve Sando. Lynne Rossetto Kasper talks to him about how he got his start, his favorite kinds of beans, and his "foolproof" method for preparing them.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: So how did you get into beans?

Steve Sando: I had no ag background at all. I was a frustrated home cook more than anything, and that's really what pushed me. I think with not having an ag background, I didn't understand the limitations of what I was doing. I just blindly went in, and it's been an incredible success, specializing in heirloom beans in particular.

LRK: How do you define an heirloom?

SS: Well, it's a pure seed, so you'll plant it and you'll get the exact same thing. A hybrid, you really don't know. There's a place for hybrids, like Early Girl tomatoes here in California are critical, so I'm not anti-hybrids, but heirlooms generally are harder to grow and they have a lower yield, but the payoff is the flavor. Coming at this as a home cook, all I cared about was the flavor.

LRK: Let's talk about some of the beans that you do. How many varieties are you doing?

Steve Sando
Steve Sando

SS: We grow about 25 varieties on the West Coast, and that's most of our production. But we're also importing about 10 varieties from Mexico, and now we just started with Poland.

LRK: Interesting. Poland.

SS: Yes. We had a great runner bean that was really white and creamy and large, and we had crop failure year after year. So I thought, "Who does the best ones?" For me, it was Italy, so we went looking at Italy.

And it turns out, most of the production for Italy is now in Poland, so the Corona Bean is now what we call the Royal Corona, because they're slightly different; they're a little less potato-y and even more creamy. The Spanish or the Greeks would call them "gigandes." It's food, drink, and lodging all in one bean. A highlight in my life is eating these things.

LRK: This is a bean I know, and I have to say it's like eating meat. It's a delicious bean. What are some of the beans that you think even if someone says, "I don't care about beans, I don't want to eat beans," that if you could put a spoonful in their mouths, they'd just be blown away?

SS: We call them the "you'll be back" beans, because people do think, "How good could it be? I've had beans, and these can't be that much different." But there are certain ones. There's one called Rio Zape, and it has a hint of chocolate and a hint of coffee that is similar to a pinto, but you eat it, and this is the bean that got me started. I thought, "Oh, this is much, much better than what I was expecting."

There's one called Eye of the Goat that is super meaty, but it has a bit of skin. Right now, we've got this lovely little Alubia bean, and Alubias are more Spanish, they're smaller and they're white. The lighter ones, sometimes some of them are so creamy they should be marked "dairy." It's really fun exploring how many white beans can you have, and yet we have about six right now and I wouldn't even dream of giving up one of them.

LRK: Let's talk cooking. What do you think brings out the best flavor in the beans?

SS: My thinking is, you should do a tiny bit of oil, a tiny bit of some aromatic or many aromatics, and water. A lot of people want to use chicken stock, and I just think it's a complete waste of chicken stock, and it doesn't allow the bean to shine.

Now, if these are commodity beans at your grocery store, you might want to put a hambone in it, but with heirloom beans they don't really need a lot of our help. I usually sauté an onion and some garlic in olive oil. If I'm being ambitious, I'll maybe put celery or carrot and a bay leaf, and then I add water. That's it. 

LRK: What about the idea, "To soak or not to soak?"

SS: I used to care deeply. Now, I think if you're cooking beans at home, good for you whether you do or you don't. Everyone who works for us tends to start as a soaker and ends up not soaking, and that's partly because, and it's not any marketing genius, it's just that we run out of beans all the time. We don't have beans over a year old, so the soaking really doesn't help that much.

LRK: So if a bean if potentially older, then you'd want to soak it. And slow cooker?

SS: Yes. I'm also an infidel, so I love slow cookers, I love pressure cookers. My favorite, favorite thing is clay, so I have some clay pots and it seems to be a real trend right now. Paul Wolfert wrote that wonderful book on clay pot cooking, so I tend to not go anywhere without coming home with a clay pot.

Slow cookers are great. With slow cookers and pressure cookers, half the fun is the bean broth and the pot licker, and for a bean freak like myself, that's just as important as the bean. When you're cooking them that way, there's no evaporation, so I just would suggest doing an extra half-hour to an hour with the lid off, and allow some evaporation and life to come in.

LRK: And concentrate the broth.

SS: Yes.

LRK: Now what about the question of "salt or not salt" when you start the beans?

SS: Salting, I think, has been proven that it really doesn't matter. But I am so cheap, the thought of spending that money on the beans and all that time, then finding out this is the one time it did matter? I just can't do it.

There's a point where the bean starts smelling like beans instead of just the aromatics and olive oil. You can tell they're not cooked, but you can tell they've given up, they're yours, and you can do what you will now. That's the point I normally will salt, because you want to do it as early as possible so the beans can absorb the salt, otherwise you have salty broth and bland beans. Even with science telling me otherwise, I don't salt until that point.

LRK: So is that about halfway through?

SS: Yes. And you can tell the beans aren't done at all, but you can just tell there's no turning back. I think the salting, the soaking, and all these things are really up to you, but my secret is, for the first 15 minutes you boil the heck out of it and just keep going. That initial boil is foolproof as far as I'm concerned. It won't hurt the beans, because they're still so hard at that point.

After a full 15 minutes of a full boil, I turn it down as low as it will go and gently simmer. If I have an easy Sunday, I keep it really low and just very gently do it and it takes hours.  But that initial 15-minute boil is my foolproof secret.

LRK: What does that do?

SS: I don't know! It's not science; it's my fantasy life, I guess. I think it just lets the beans know you're in charge, and there's no turning back.

LRK: I love the way you talk about the beans. Good relationship going there.

SS: We're friends.

[Ed. note: For more information on Steve Sando's heirloom beans, recipes, and more, visit ranchogordo.com.]

Lynne Rossetto Kasper

Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show.