Shaker Thumbs

Hello, and welcome to Shaker Thumbs: Heirloom Legume Edition!

This post covers Rancho Gordo New World Specialty Food and Purcell Mountain Farms. Use the thread to discuss businesses, products, and services you like or dislike, so we can share in the wealth of your knowledge.

Magic beans: heirloom Vaquero beans from Rancho Gordo New World Specialty Food of Napa, California. Heirloom strains are those that are open-pollinating and have been carried from one generation to the next for more than 50 years. Read more about open pollination and heirloom crops.

In John Steinbeck's The Wayward Bus, bus driver and mechanic Juan Chicoy muses on the longevity of his contentious marriage:
Besides Alice was the only woman he had ever found outside of Mexico who could cook beans. A funny thing. Every little Indian in Mexico could cook beans properly and no one up here except Alice—just enough juice, just the right flavor of the bean without another flavor mixed up with it. Here they put tomatoes and chili and garlic and such things in the beans, and a bean should be cooked for itself, with itself, alone. Juan chuckled. "Because she can cook beans", he said to himself.

(page 114 of the Penguin Twentieth Century Classics edition)
I could write a whole post about how Steinbeck's love of Darwin (possibly gained from his buddy Ed Ricketts) emerges in The Wayward Bus as speculations in pop evolutionary psychology, and maybe someday I will. For now, though, I'll say that besides the vividness and economy of the writing, there are two great things about this book: the women are actual characters, not merely symbolic links between men. And Juan Chicoy is 100% right about beans.

My parents are natural born Texans. They raised me in Steinbeck country (Santa Clara County, right next to Steinbeck's native San Benito County). My mother also spent the '60s living and teaching in Colombia. So throughout my childhood the big pressure-cooker my folks got as a wedding present was usually full of beans. Beans in our house meant pinto beans cooked for themselves, with themselves, alone. When I was hungry I would eat some cold straight out of the pot. My mother preferred her signature creation, the bean "foldover": a single piece of bread folded around a scoop of beans, plain or refried.

Steve Sando, founder of Rancho Gordo New World Specialty Food, says that "[y]ou can tell where someone is from by their attitude about beans," adding that "Californians and Southwesterners understand that you have a pot of beans like any other veg[.]" That is certainly true for me, and over the past few months, I've cooked Sando's beans according to his simple directions with nothing added but perhaps a bay leaf, a bit of sauteed onion and carrot, and a splash of vinegar at the very end.

I discovered Rancho Gordo on a search for dried posole for my sister. Now, posole is worthy of a whole other post, and I doubt I could write about it better than Calvin Trillin did in Gourmet in 2002. I will report, though, that Rancho Gordo's dried posole has a rich heady flavor and addictively chewy texture entirely unlike the waxy lumps you get in cans.

Rancho Gordo offers $8.95 flat rate shipping by UPS no matter how many pounds of food you buy, so when I got TheLadyEve's posole I added a bunch of beans too: Good Mother Stallard, Vaquero, Yellow Indian Woman, and Cargamanto. All I have left is the handful of vaqueros pictured above. Rancho Gordo is not cheap, but rest assured, these are no ordinary beans.

Because Rancho Gordo beans are never stored for more than a year, they are very fresh and require only a short soaking (4-6 hours); over-soaking can cause them to split during cooking. The varieties I tried all cooked in 1.5 to 2.5 hours, and all were dense, velvety, and fragrant.

Sando's Yellow Indian Woman beans impressed me so much that I went looking for a place that sells this heirloom variety in units larger than one pound. That's how I found Purcell Mountain Farms in Moyie Springs, Idaho. Purcell Mountain Farms partners with other farms to offer a wide selection of beans, lentils, dried fruit, and much more. Some of their beans are heirloom strains and some are organic; everything is clearly labeled. And you can buy many of their beans in 1-, 3-, 5-, or 10-lb quantities. The Yellow Indian Woman beans I got from Purcell Mountain farms are darker in color than Rancho Gordo's, and I have not cooked any yet, so I cannot compare the quality. However, the heirloom Rio Zape beans from PMF are absolutely the best beans I have ever made or tasted. (Rancho Gordo offers this variety as well.)

Purcell Mountain Farms ships in USPS flat-rate boxes; orders up to $25 ship for $9.99. So while PMF's prices are a bit lower than Rancho Gordo's, the shipping may be more, depending on how much you buy.

What I would recommend is to get a few friends together, put in a big order to Rancho Gordo or PMF (or both), and divide the goodies.

5-dollar-a-pound beans are steep compared with grocery store brands, but there is no comparison in flavor and texture. A pound of beans is about 10 servings, and they are a complete meal with a bit of rice, bread, or cornbread. You could dress them up with a sofrito/mirepoix cooked in bacon grease, or with a bit of sausage or roast chicken, but it's really not necessary. These beans make for luxurious vegan meals.

Share your recommendations and warnings in comments, folks. Your links need not be legume-related!

Previously in Shaker Thumbs: One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six.

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