When I became interested in cooking more than 35 years ago, a new way of thinking about it was beginning to take hold throughout the United States. Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking had been in print since 1961, the venerable, elitist Gourmet magazine had become a must-read even for nonserious cooks, and Chez Panisse, a "hippie" restaurant that opened in 1971 in Berkeley, Calif., was getting a lot of mainstream praise for its melding of haute technique with local ingredients.
The trouble for me as a cook trying to follow those leaders was that I lived in St. Petersburg. Like most small cities far from major metropolitan areas, it didn't have stores that carried many of the ingredients and products required to make the wondrously novel dishes I read about.
Some things I could finesse. I learned to make my own pasta, puff pastry and creme fraiche. My husband and I drove over the Skyway Bridge to the small farms that let u-pickers into the fields for beautiful fresh vegetables. I grew my own herbs. But there was no finessing balsamic vinegar or premium olive oil.
At some point, I discovered Williams-Sonoma, which had been selling upscale kitchen equipment from its store in San Francisco for years and began a mail-order business in 1971. Suddenly, a range of sophisticated pantry items was available, and I think I ordered every one of them.
Many of those rareties are staples for us today, and there's not much we can't buy from a local supermarket or specialty store.
Still, there are some. And even if others might be available locally, I often don't have the time to drive around and ferret them out. So I continue my mail-order habit, aided now by my virtual sous chefs, Google and websites that let me roam the aisles of distant food emporiums from my computer screen. In this occasional column, I'll tell you about some of my favorite finds and how I use them. Most of them aren't very expensive or exotic. They're just very good, able to make even a humble dish special.
For example: Rancho Gordo dried beans.
Yes, dried beans.
Steve Sando, who founded the California company, has made it his mission to find and grow heirloom varieties that were near extinction. They're about as far removed from the kind you typically find in a supermarket as toro is from canned tuna. (Okay, maybe I'm overstating a little. But not much.)
Rancho Gordo beans are grown and dried in small quantities, guaranteeing a short shelf life — which means a much more tender bean when cooked.
They're more flavorful, too. I've always used stock of some kind to punch up bean soups and stews and usually felt the need to add some kind of meat and lots of salt.
All you need with Rancho Gordo beans are water and a few aromatics (carrot, celery, onion, maybe garlic, for example) to produce a deeply satisfying and soulful pot of goodness. You can add other things for more layers of flavor, as I have with the second part of the soup recipe here, but you could stop with the soak and simmer process and be very happy with the results. The point is, you don't want to mess too much with the beauty of these humble building blocks.
By bean standards, Rancho Gordos are expensive, usually $4.95 or $5.95 for a pound plus shipping. But they yield a hearty meal serving at least four adults, one that isn't just for the pro-forma meatless economy night.
The website (ranchogordo.com) has descriptions of the beans and suggested uses. No matter the type, I always keep them simple.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.