The deep purple Rio Zape hints of coffee and chocolate. The red nightfall has sharp, piney notes. There's the velvety borlotti, the full-bodied mayacoba, the buttery flageolet. But even though they ship from Napa Valley, these aren't fine wines. They're beans, Rancho Gordo–style—and they make the perfect autumn comfort food.
California company Rancho Gordo specializes in beans grown from seeds handed down through generations (some two dozen bean varieties sell online at RanchoGordo.com). Heirloom beans don't look like their supermarket cousins—their speckled surfaces evoke beach pebbles from far-off shores—and they don't taste like them, either. Canned beans tend to carry hefty doses of salt or sugar, but as Rancho Gordo founder Steve Sando says, heirlooms "don't really need our help to taste good." Sando's new cookbook, Heirloom Beans (Chronicle), has excellent timing: It's a bonanza of cold-weather dishes, including slow-simmered chili and hearty soups and stews. Try the cellini bean soup with chard and poached eggs, or the spectacular Christmas lima with pork chops, cabbage, and Asian pear relish, and you'll conclude that there's no need to relegate the humble bean to side-dish status—it's worthy of taking center stage.