By Jessie Price, January/February 2009
"Time for wind sprints," our model-perfect instructor, Haley, yelled. I had a flashback to high school tennis team practices—a combination of feeling dread and wanting to kick the butt of the tall skinny girl next to me. I ran as fast as I could. And then as we zigged and zagged between the lines, Haley yelled at us, “Come on guys. If you finish this you can eat two salads at lunch…and maybe a little dressing.”
When I arrived at the health spa Rancho La Puerta in northern Baja Mexico, I had some expectations: hours of tranquil pampering, as much exercise as I could pack into a day and tiny portions of spare-looking food. I wasn’t disappointed by the daily schedule of massages, salt rubs and soaks in hot baths. Plus the Ranch has other ways to help guests relax, from guided meditation and crafts to plenty of hammocks strategically placed around the campus. And the spa, which started in 1940 as a sort of boot camp-style retreat, is serious about exercise. I started every day with a 6 a.m. group hike onto the flanks of Mt. Kuchumaa (which rises 2,000 feet above the back gates of the Ranch), followed by swimming laps or exercise classes. But when it came to the food I wasn’t sure what to expect. Was I going to starve?
When I walked into the dining room after class with Haley, I was relieved. There was a tangy cactus salad cupped in radicchio leaves and guacamole-topped tostadas with cabbage, cucumber and jícama slaw. And there was a zesty pureed bean soup with an array of fresh homemade salsas to garnish it. A big bowl of chia and flaxseeds stood near the salsas to top your meal. “They’re high in fiber and omega-3s,” Nutrition Director Yvonne Nienstadt explained. There was no meat. The food at the Ranch is mostly vegetarian; fish is served occasionally. “We encourage our guests to eat more plant-based foods with emphasis on vegetables and fruits,” she said. Serving sizes were small, but the servers happily dished up more when asked. Lunch was delicious and I got plenty to eat.
The next day I headed to a hands-on cooking class to learn how to make some of the food I had enjoyed at the Ranch. When our class arrived, our instructor, Chef Jesús González, turned us over to Salvador Tinajero, the head gardener. With twinkling eyes and a huge grin, Salvador led us into the garden to pick what we needed for class. We weaved through rows of red-leafed Boston lettuce, bok choy, purple opal basil and giant artichokes. After picking juicy cherry tomatoes and a few jalapeños, Salvador ripped out a handful of fresh basil and handed it all to me. “Taste them all together. It’s like eating salsa straight out of the garden.” I took bites of each and I knew why I had been blown away by the salsa they served at every meal.
Rancho La Puerta opened its cooking school, La Cocina Que Canta (The Kitchen That Sings), in 2007, right next to a six-acre organic garden that supplies much of the fresh produce for the Ranch and the school. School director Antonia Allegra said the plan from the start was “to teach guests the connection between the garden, cooking and eating.”
Back in the kitchen we got down to the cooking and eating part of class. Chef Jesús talked us through the nine dishes we were going to cook, which blended Mediterranean influences with the traditions of his native Mexican cuisine. When we got to our cooking stations the ingredients were laid out, including bundles of fresh herbs everywhere. Part of the key to the Ranch’s high-flavor, healthy food, as in EatingWell recipes, is to use plenty of fresh herbs so you can cut back on salt and fat without sacrificing flavor. I made a tamale pie (basically tamales, casserole-style) and loaded up the dough with fresh oregano from the garden. Two other women prepared a magically quick mole to top the tamale pie. “Everything we make here should be delicious and healthy and easy to make too,” Chef Jesús told us. And it was. About an hour after we started, we sat down to enjoy our feast.
Packing up at the end of the week, I was determined to bring home some of my Ranch bliss. OK, maybe I couldn’t recreate all of it. My boss wouldn’t appreciate me spending every afternoon on a massage table. And I wouldn’t have Haley to spur on any wind sprints. But Chef Jesús’ simple, healthy recipes are easy to recreate anywhere. Following are some of my favorites, from that tamale pie I made to a creamy-silky vanilla flan topped with candied walnuts. Here’s to a taste of the Ranch in your kitchen and mine.