Rancho Gordo’s Steve Sando Avoids the Grocery Store at All Costs

Steve Sando among the beans. Illustration: Margalit Cutler

Steve Sando has been living through a great bean rush. His company, Rancho Gordo, is the purveyor of choice for garbanzo geeks, and overwhelming orders have led to shipping delays for regulars and its semi-famous Bean Club. Most people have understood. “But one guy called me reprehensible,” says Sando, who also recently published The Rancho Gordo Heirloom Bean Guide. Sando lives alone in Napa, California, where he gardens “obscure vegetables,” cooks for his mother next door, and trades beans with neighbors for duck eggs, wild mushrooms, and other foods. The bean boom also has Sando working six days a week, but he’s still cooking all the time the way he likes to: repurposing and reusing ingredients, with a California sensibility. You could find him cooking his weekly pots of beans, marinating chicken thighs and pickling mushrooms, and baking his favorite cornbread.

Thursday, April 30
I drink Peet’s French Roast made in an Italian Moka pot. Whole scalded milk. I used to use sugar but now I use BochaSweet kabocha sugar. It’s not as good, but it’s not bad — like most artificial sweeteners.

Super-dark European coffee is what I grew up with, when it was a total trend in San Francisco. That’s where I picked up on it. There’s a trend now for light coffee. I know people like to say dark roast is burnt and a waste of good coffee, but I think they’re nuts. I’m sorry, I’d rather drink coffee in Italy than almost anywhere. I think they know what they’re doing. I don’t get Blue Bottle at all. In the early days of the farmers’ market they’d always want to trade with me, and it was like, ugh, no I don’t want this.

During the quarantine, I’ve been eating a lot. I get a CSA box on Tuesdays from a local charcuterie shop, the Fatted Calf. (They wrote In the Charcuterie — the breadth of their knowledge of Italian, French, and even Mexican charcuterie is just shocking to me.) The box is full of veg from Riverdog Farm but I also get a lot of meat, dairy, and Spanish chorizo from Fatted Calf while I’m there. I also tend to get Straus Family yogurt.

At some point later in the week, I also go to a local Mexican Market, La Tapatia, where I get tortillas, chicharrones, and vegetable basics like onions, limes, and chiles. I’ll often get a pound of the carnitas they make there, the tortillas, salsa, and call it a day, because it’s really good. I’ve only been to the conventional grocery store once since lockdown. It was very unpleasant and I would avoid it at all costs in the future. It was no fun. Between the Mexican market, the Fatty Calf, and my CSA, I’m pretty good. Plus I have all the beans I want, which definitely helps.

I was affected by the Napa fires two and a half years ago, we were evacuated for two weeks; then we’ve had these rolling blackouts; and now we have this and it’s like I don’t trust anything. I also think by having a garden, it’s like I’m off the grid a little bit, I’m out of the system, and I’m a little more self-reliant. Now, I’m not freaking out, but I don’t like going to the store if I don’t have to. At night, when I’m coming home from work, I think, eh you know what? I can skip yet another day. Which is really bad for these businesses in general, but for me, it’s like there’s a satisfaction for going, “I can actually do a lot less. And it’s actually even more fun.” That’s one good thing that’s come from this.

For breakfast I had some leftover kale from my CSA box (made with Fatted Calf pancetta) tossed with previously cooked ayocote morado beans. I prefer dandelion greens, chard, or rapini to kale but with enough pancetta, anything is delicious. With kale, it’s a sort of penance — it feels like you’re doing your duty. I love the bitterness of the dandelions, and the chards slightly sweet. I just think they’re more versatile.

I’m here by myself. My mother lives right next door, so I see her, and I have another family that lives on the property, but mostly I’m here by myself at this point. I have extra food and bring it to my mom.

Snacked on mixed nuts. I buy a bag each of almonds, cashews, and pecans and mix them myself from Trader Joe’s. I live on this.

Pounded chicken thighs pan-roasted, with roasted asparagus reheated in the pan juices with a little chicken stock to get the bits from cooking the chicken. The asparagus was in the CSA box. I used to steam them all the time, but I think tossing them in olive oil and roasting them is great.

I like buying boneless, skinless chicken thighs and pounding them before marinating them. I marinated these in olive oil, banana vinegar from Veracruz that we have, salt and pepper, and oregano indio. I don’t overkill it. I try to keep it as neutral as I can, but the banana vinegar is out of this world. It’s true rotted bananas and plantains. I think a lot of the fruit vinegars are plain vinegars with fruit flavoring added.

You can heat up a steel pan or cast iron until very hot and cook about six minutes each side. Let it rest and cut them up. It has the same satisfaction as steak for me. Normally I buy a whole chicken and cut it up and use as needed, always making broth, but I got these from the grocery store when I went. They were so cheap I thought, I’m gonna do this. 

My thing is, you just want to keep reinventing the ingredients you have. There’s that great book, An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler. I love the whole concept. Her thing is, food will never be as fresh as when you brought it home from the market. So do as much prep as you can up front. When you’re tired, you’re not going to sit there and create this beautiful vegetable medley. But when it’s sitting there in a container and ready to go, you can heat up some vegetables and call it a day. Then you incorporate beans and, for me either, the charcuterie or marinated chicken thighs — you can do everything pretty quickly once you lay the groundwork.

Ended my night with Strauss whole milk Euro-style yogurt with Bocha Sweet kabocha sugar. This yogurt is so good, it takes the place of ice cream for me.

Friday, May 1
Beans. More ayocote morado (and bean broth) with roasted cauliflower, pinch of Burlap & Barrel cumin and our own pimenton. I had made a pot early in the week, and then Friday morning I made this dish with them. It just keeps giving.

I go on jags, and this week, I was just on this jag of Spanish pimenton and cumin. Not enough that you can tell what either one is, because I think then you’ve almost used too much, so just a scant, scant amount. It’s just this great combination. But, more than anything else, I love thyme. I actually don’t think there’s a better herb in the world, until I decide to use rosemary.

Also, chicharron con carne. When I went to my Mexican market, to buy tortillas, I couldn’t resist the great carnitas and chicharrones they have. It’s not just the skin. I don’t know how to describe it but I’m sure a full diet of these would cause gout. They’re scary good. The fat just melts in your mouth in a completely appealing way. I don’t do it often, but sometimes get one for the road. It’s this perfect blend of meat and fat and skinny. It’s not gristly fat. Pork fat by itself is disgusting to me. I don’t know what the deal with this is, but it’s terrific.

Chicken tacos made with the pounded chicken thighs, plus white onions, cilantro, limes and, Cosecha Purepecha chipotle salsa. That’s from Michoacán. When I was there maybe 15 or 12 years ago, we actually went to the factory because my friends who live down there said, “oh, this is great stuff.” And I just loved it. Locally I noticed they had it at Tapatio, and I’ve just been hoarding it. We make a chipotle salsa at Rancho Gordo, which is excellent, but with things I love, I don’t limit it to us. I still buy other people’s beans, for example, and this chipotle salsa in particular is just great.

Saturday, May 2
Made a soup with the last of the ayocote morados and their broth, a scoop of hongos en vinagre from wild mushrooms from Wine Forest. Connie Green is a local forager who wrote a great book, The Wild Table. She lives up here on the mountain, so sometimes we’ll trade, and because she was really tied in with chefs she got stuck with all these fresh mushrooms. I had way too many, so I pickled them.

There are lots of recipes for hongos en vinagre online but I tend to follow Diana Kennedy’s instructions. If you find yourself with a lot of mushrooms, like I did, this is a great way to extend their life and you always have a good snack on hand. It’s another fast food. (I’ll just come home from work and put them in a tortilla and make a pickled mushroom taco and that’s fine. I wouldn’t serve it to company, but to get through the night it’s great.) The vinegar from the mushrooms was a perfect bit of acid for the rich bean broth. I used regular chicharrones as croutons. They make a real snap-crackle-pop sound and they’re delicious in a soup like this.

That soup was one of the most successful things I’ve ever done. This is why you make beans for yourself, so you can have things like this bean broth. It was mostly bean broth and mushrooms and vinegar. To me it’s the most exciting thing: when you do leftover cooking and you come up with a great dish like that. I probably at some point would write about the soup it was so good.

I haven’t been baking sourdough, but the fact that people are so into sourdough — some people roll their eyes — I think it is one of the best things to happen. It’s all about control. You can control the rising of water and flour? That must feel great. I think about this with beans, I can turn this rock into something creamy. Maybe I’m wrong, but it’s little places where you can control things that helps you get through this.

Dinner was pan-roasted duck breast (from Liberty Duck in Sonoma) and sauteed Red Russian kale.  I have a weird love of duck breast, also it’s sort of a challenge because there’s nothing like it and there’s nothing worse if you overcook it then it gets rubbery. I just did salt and pepper, then deglazed the pan with the kale cookings. I hadn’t put the pancetta back in it and I thought, this is so rich, it doesn’t need that. I also thought, how this would be great for two meals. Well, it wasn’t. It barely made one.

Sunday, May 3
Red Russian kale with pancetta, a fried duck egg I traded for with a neighbor — I bet both thought we came out ahead — and cornbread made with Antebellum coarse white cornmeal from Anson Mills. I used their skillet cornbread recipe but I replaced some of the milk with goat yogurt.  I love that they don’t use flour in those recipes.

There’s no consistency with Southerners. Despite what you hear, some say you do need to add sugar. Some say it has to be buttermilk. It’s exhausting, and not being a Southerner and growing up on really crappy Jiffy cornmeal, I discovered the Anson Mills coarse grind and nothing is better with beans. The cornmeal is a game changer compared to what I had.

You can heat up the skillet with the fat on the stove, pour the batter in and it sizzles, and then put it in the oven. It’s 20 minutes, and there’s just nothing like it. I’m just shocked by how good it is. If the pan is hot enough when the batter hits, it forms a crust that’s not very deep but is almost like when you eat cheese and it has that crystalline thing going. It’s the most subtle, sublime crunch-to-cornbread ratio. The only problem with this cornbread is it doesn’t keep. And the other problem is deciding what the word portion means. “Can I get away with eating the whole thing?” You just turn into such a pig because it’s so delicious.

You slather it with butter and it’s hot and you almost can’t even talk it’s so good. Or you add beans and bean broth or even kale and the kale potlikker, and you’re thinking, why aren’t we doing more of this? I’d rather learn more about this than some obscure Italian preparation. There’s so much great simple food to eat at home, it’s frustrating we don’t do more of it. A Southerner told me about taking the cornbread, breaking it up into a glass, and then you pour buttermilk over it. I thought, that just sounds as disgusting as it gets. I tried it and it was absolutely delicious.

Later, I made a quesadilla with onions, cilantro, Cosecha salsa, and crap jack cheese. Mexicans don’t actually use jack cheese, but they use bland cheeses, so I don’t think it’s such a crime. When I went to the grocery store, I just bought a ton of it because it was super cheap and the expiration date was far away. It’s so funny where I’m a snob and where I’m not. There is a line I won’t cross, but crappy cheese is fine. It has its place.

I also had a salad of garbanzos, Fatted Calf Spanish chorizo, Trader Joe’s marinated red peppers, onion, Olive Oil Jones Gata-Hurdes from Extremadura, Spain (home of pimento and the conquistadors), chives, and sherry vinegar. I love salads, I like lettuce fine, there are all sorts of interesting ones. But living alone, it’s really hard dealing with lettuce, and I’ve discovered if I have super crunchy things, plus beans, it’s this creamy, crunchy combination that makes a great salad. Lately, I’m loving shaved fennel. Not by itself, but mixed as part of something else.

Monday, May 3
Penance, sort of. Even for me that was a rough four days or so. “Okay, we need to slow down a bit here.”

I try to skip breakfast as much as I can. I did have a half cup of homemade sauerkraut this morning, which would actually be a typical breakfast for me. Just having that so I’m not dying, that works for me.

I always make it. This winter, we got a lot of cabbage from the CSA. I have a beautiful fermenting pot. I tend not to spice it while it’s fermenting, it’s probably fine, but I always worry about a little bit floating to the top and causing trouble. I find, though, you have to add tons of onion, which makes it 10 times better. I added tons of carrots, too, and I tend to like the red cabbage more just because it looks cool.

Chard and Anson Mills Carolina Gold rice. I did have pancetta leftover, and I opened a can of tomatoes, so I chopped up some tomatoes and added them as well, so it was a little more of a sauce for the kale. There’s a brown rice I love called Massa from Chico, California, it’s like eating nuts. But I had the Carolina Gold, and with that rice you want to keep it as simple as you can.

For dinner, I had Manchego cheese, a bit more Spanish chorizo, mixed nuts, and a sherry. That’s all. I was like, “I just need to slow it down a bit.” But I was about to start it all over again the next day. I had the CSA coming. It was just one day of simple eating.

I’m not minding the shelter-in-place, until I do, and then it drives me crazy. I really don’t love going to restaurants all that much unless they’re really special — it’s not something I do casually. But almost every week I have a dinner party here, I have a couple of friends over, and that’s the thing that kills me. I can almost bear all of this, but that part seems nice, and it seems like if we had mass testing we could take smarter, more calculated risks. But it’s not worth it at this point. That’s the thing: I want to open that door and see someone on the other side — that would make me very happy.

I would much prefer to be cooking for more people. I’m living for these meals, and there’s this tiny bit of melancholy that comes at the end, like oh, it’s done. It’s this one bit of pleasure of quarantining, and now it’s done. I’m looking forward to the day that passes, I would say.

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