I was raised in the 1960s by a progressive mother who was a health food nut and a vegetarian long before most people knew what those were. She grew up during the depression and knew how to make low-cost staple ingredients like dried beans and lentils taste utterly delicious. We almost always had a pot of beans simmering away in a big copper kettle on the stove.
One time I stumbled across a bag of dried beans from a place called Rancho Gordo and they were outstanding, unlike any other beans I had ever eaten. I became curious about this “Rancho Gordo” and looked them up. The company was started by a gentleman named Steve Sando who was frustrated with the run-of-the-mill beans grown as commodity crops that are commonly available in grocery stores. His quest to find a better bean propelled him from a backyard garden experiment to warehouses, mail order, and a network of farmers across the Americas who grow heirloom beans that have flavor and history. Some varieties have been cultivated for hundreds of years. They are packed with mouthwatering flavor, have velvety textures and are so good that they can be eaten plain.
After looking at their website for a couple of hours, I ordered a few bags. I learned that if a person wants to get the rare limited harvest beans they have to join the Rancho Gordo bean club. The company ships six bags every quarter and the box includes a surprise; last time it was a jar of pure New Mexican chili powder. When the box arrives, I am full of anticipation and sheer delight. What unusual beans am I going to get this time? Not only do I get beans, I learn some history and get a geography lesson too because an informative newsletter accompanies the beans.
Last week, I cooked a bag of borlotti lamons, the equivalent of pinto beans on steroids. All I added was vegetable broth, bay leaves, and ham hocks. They were extraordinary in their simplicity. Another time I made my usual pot of chili and instead of using regular kidney beans, I used ayocote morados and suddenly my chili jumped to elite status.
Sometimes I feel saddened that so much flavor and diversity has been lost in the food chain along the way. My grandmother used to say that the food now just doesn’t taste as good as she remembered when growing up. I have heard similar statements from other older folks. I applaud people like Steve Sando who work tirelessly to preserve genetic diversity and heritage in our food. Because of that I have access to the highest quality ingredients available and I can cook like I’m a chef in a fancy five-star restaurant. That’s awesome!