Vail Daily food: Where beans take center stage |

Vail Daily food: Where beans take center stage

Caramie Schnell
Vail, CO Colorado
Courtesy of "Heirloom Beans" | SpeciaVail Daily food: In Steve Sando's cookbook "Heirloom Beans," he says his favorite way to flavor beans is simply: with a carrot, onion and celery mirepoix.

VAIL, Colorado –There’s something supremely romantic about beans. The tiny hard nuggets are akin to Mother Nature’s magic.

Carry a few in your pocket across a continent, a country, or a just across town, plant it in the ground and watch the miracle that follows. Beans were one of the first domesticated plants and entire civilizations sustained themselves with beans – chock full of protein, fiber and vitamins – for centuries.

Despite all of that, I didn’t understand how delicious a bean could be until a few months ago. I’ve always liked beans, don’t get me wrong, but I was only familiar with the usual suspects – pinto, black, kidneys, lima and maybe white northern if I was feeling like really branching out.

Then a friend introduced me to “heirloom beans,” specifically beans from Rancho Gordo in California, which specializes in rare and nearly-lost varieties of beans. Steve Sando is passionate about food indigenous to the Americas, which is why he started searching out rare beans in the first place, and eventually founded Rancho Gordo.

The first thing you’ll notice when you see these beans is they’re beautiful – from black-and-white-splotched black calypso beans, also known as the yin/yang bean, to the tri-colored yellow eye bean that Sando calls “a ham hock’s best friend.” Their names, not to mention their histories, are equally intriguing – eye of the tiger, red nightfall, yellow indian woman and black valentine are just a few.

But cooking dried beans at high altitude is next to impossible, I thought.

Wrong – at least when you’re cooking Rancho Gordo beans, which are grown by small artisan growers. That means the supply chain is shorter and the beans are fresher. They are less than a year old, while some grocery store dried beans can be two or three years old.

I soaked my first batch of beans – cranberry-and-white good mother stallard beans – for an hour before simmering them in a pot on the stove with some garlic and onion. It’s a very simple way to cook them and one that Sando recommends in his book “Heirloom Beans: Recipes from Rancho Gordo.”

Within an hour and a half, the beans were tender and plump. The aroma in the house made my mouth water and when I took that first bite, I became a believer. Their texture and flavor were unlike any bean I’d eaten before.

Pollyanna Forster, owner of Eat! Drink! and co-owner of Dish in Edwards, had a similar revelation when she tried the Rancho Gordo beans.

“I had them when I was in San Francisco a year and a half ago and they were mind blowing,” she said.

Along with an intense flavor and an almost meaty texture, Forster said she was impressed by how many varieties she’d never heard of, she said.

“Like having all those different types of wine, one type will be great in a cold bean salad, while another would be great for chili or a stew,” she said.

She bought a few packages of the beans in Napa, where Rancho Gordo is based, and joined a waiting list of the people practically begging to sell the beans in their stores.

She “edged” her way up that list, and a few weeks ago, unpacked the first box.

“Frasca in Boulder uses their beans, and Dish uses them, but (Eat!) is the only place in Colorado where you can buy them,” Forster said.

Jenna Johansen, co-owner and executive chef of Dish, has been using the ojo de cabra, or eye of the goat bean, to make a chilled bean salad, she said.

“I cook it really simply, with fresh mushrooms and that’s it.”

That way, the highlight of the dish is the bean.

“There’s a push towards comfort food, and eating a little closer to the ground,” Johansen said. “Using items like really nice heritage beans is a really beautiful way to eat and Rancho Gordo encourages you to cook food as simply as possible to celebrate the quality of the ingredient.”

The trend towards heirlooms is a popular one, and for good reason, said David Wolford, the chef-owner of Splendido in Beaver Creek.

“It’s nice that they’re preserving old varieties because when agribusiness gets a hold of everything, they wipe out the heirloom varities and only develop the kinds they like for shipping and packing and storage, rather than flavor,” Wolford said. “Like in the case of tomatoes, which are picked green and shipped rock hard.”

While such practices might keep the food prices low, Wolford isn’t sure it’s worth it.

“Why should food be cheap anyhow?” he said. “Maybe we should take a little care with our food and pay more for it because it’s an important thing.”

High Life Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at 970-748-2984 or


“Summertime, or anytime, is the right time for a cool bean salad,” says Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo on his website. “I don’t often soak my beans but runner cannellini seem to beg for a gentle re-hydration, so these get the spa treatment before cooking. They will look horrible as they soak and you might think the skins are falling apart and the whole thing is a mess, but as the beans re-hydrate, they swell up and expand, pulling the skins with them like a balloon. I almost always saute onion, celery and carrot in olive oil and add this mixture, along with a bay leaf, into the pot for cooking.”

2 cups cooked runner cannellini beans

1/2 red bell pepper, chopped

1/2 green bell pepper, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1 scant teaspoon, fresh Italian oregano

1/2 fresh tomato, chopped

olive oil and vinegar to taste

salt to taste

Gently toss all ingredients and chill for about an hour. Variations: Serve on a bed of lettuce. Substitute vinegar for a fig balsamic.


2 cups beans, cooked

1/2 bottle beer

1 piece bacon

1/2 onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

3 whole serrano peppers, minced

1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced


Warm cooked beans. Add beer. These beans should be somewhat soupy. Add more beer if too thick; or turn up the flame, cook off excess liquid if too thin.

Cook single rasher of bacon in an ungreased frying pan. Remove bacon and excess fat, leaving about a tablespoon. Saute onion, garlic and chiles. When soft, add mushrooms. Cook until soft. Chop bacon and add to mixture.

Add mushroom/bacon mix to the pot of beans. Mix thoroughly and cook for another 10 minutes. Test for seasoning. Serve with a lime wedge.

Serves 4-6.

Support Local Journalism