Photography: Courtesy Sara Remington
Photography: Courtesy Sara Remington

The founder of Rancho Gordo specializes in heirloom beans, the ultimate slow food. Consider him the Keeper of the Bean.

“I eat beans with everything. I have a side of beans with my beans,” says Steve Sando, founder and president of Rancho Gordo New World Specialty Food in Napa, California. “For me, history and culture are so important. I mean, this was Mexico at one point. As a native Californian, I think it’s important that we know what our food is before we eat it. Ingredients are an integral part of this revolution — it’s not just technique.”

Sando specializes in heirloom beans, corn, and chiles. But it all started one day when he found himself buying hothouse tomatoes from Holland for a dinner party. “I just thought, This doesn’t make any sense. So I started growing my own heirloom tomatoes. I took them to the farmers market, but they wouldn’t ripen fast enough to sell, so I went to beans.” That’s when things really took off. “Early on, [The French Laundry chef] Thomas Keller was one of my first customers. He said, ‘What you’re doing is very important.’ It was like the Midas touch — literally, that day he left, everyone wanted to know what he bought and we immediately saw a rise in sales. Now, that bean is thriving.”

The ultimate slow food, beans require a fair bit of time, but not a lot of attention. Sando recommends soaking the beans for 2 – 6 hours, bringing them to a boil with some sautéed garlic and onion for 10 minutes, and then simmering for 1 – 2 hours. How to tell if a bean is ready to eat? Remove one from the pot and blow on it — if the skin wrinkles, it’s done.

Photography: Courtesy Rancho Gordo
Photography: Courtesy Rancho Gordo

Bison Chili With Chocolate

1 pound ground bison
¼ cup olive oil
1 white onion, chopped
5 garlic cloves, minced
cup New Mexico red chile powder
2 tablespoons dried oregano
2 tablespoons ground cumin
½ tablet Mexican chocolate, broken into pieces
2 cups drained cooked Rebosero
or other heirloom beans, plus 1 cup cooking liquid
1 roasted red bell pepper, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1 roasted yellow bell pepper, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1 cup stale beer
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 scant teaspoon sugar, if needed

In a large pot, cook the bison meat over medium heat, stirring and breaking it up with a wooden spoon and adding a little oil if the meat is particularly dry. When the meat is no longer pink, transfer it to a bowl using a slotted spoon and set aside. Add ¼ cup olive oil to the pot and sauté the onion and garlic over medium heat until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the chile powder and stir until a paste forms. “Fry” the paste for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the oregano, cumin, and 1 cup of water; mix well. Reduce heat to low and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the chocolate and stir until incorporated. Add the beans and reserved bean cooking liquid, bell peppers, beer, salt, reserved meat, and 1 cup water; stir well. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed, keeping in mind that the flavors will intensify as the chili cooks down. Partially cover pot, reduce heat to low, and cook, stirring occasionally, until flavors are blended, about 45 minutes.

If the chili is a little bitter, add the sugar to smooth the flavors. Spoon the chili into warmed bowls and serve immediately, accompanied with corn bread if desired.

Recipe excerpted and adapted with permission from Supper at Rancho Gordo by Steve Sando (Rancho Gordo, 2014).

From the May/June 2015 issue.

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