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Spring /Summer 2009

Napa and the Bean Stalk

These beauties are a different fruit of the vine

By Laurel Miller

Tell the guests you've invited to your next dinner party that you'll be serving eye of the goat, and you may get some last-minute cancellations. However, when you explain that you've cooked a round, tan-and-brown-speckled heirloom bean with a rich, full flavor and a meaty pot liquor (the residual cooking liquid), they may think you're a little odd, but will probably still come.

Steve Sando grows beans, chilies, tomatoes, herbs, and tomatillos, and is due to open a store in Napa this month. While he specializes in heirloom produce from the Americas, beans are his true love. "I grew up in the Bay Area, and the whole Californio thing really intrigues me," he says. "My interest in farming and sustainable agriculture developed from my love of cooking, and my experience in the food world made me realize there was a niche market for heirloom beans."

Heirloom refers to antique varieties of produce that have fallen out of popular use with the advent of modern hybrids designed to have a longer shelf life, improved shipping durability, or other mass-market appeal. While some varieties have been bred solely for aesthetic novelty, others possess desirable flavor complexities missing from familiar commercial choices.

Sando goes on seed searches throughout the Americas, where bean-farming families often introduce him to new varieties. Of the 35 he grows, eye of the goat is one of his favorites. But he is also partial to Vallarta, a "small greenish bean that has a dense, creamy, fudgelike consistency." Rio Zape, a purple-and-black bean from the pinto family, "is great for refrying and provides a rich pot liquor," says Sando. "And Christmas limas-I always thought I hated lima beans until I tried these."

Sando's store, Rancho Gordo, is opening at 1924 Yajome St., Napa. For great bean recipes, go to ranchogordo.com.

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