Rancho La Puerta: Culinary Vacation at Iconic Spa in Baja

by Sarah Henry on February 24, 2012 · 37 comments

in bay area bites,global cuisine,growing greens,recipes

Snapshots from the fitness and spa resort Rancho La Puerta Photo: Courtesy of Rancho La Puerta

Who knew that butternut squash could add a delectable richness to Mexican hot chocolate or that pureed peas could lighten up guacamole?

These secret ingredients are just a couple of the colorful accent flavors gleaned from a week at Rancho La Puerta, a beloved fitness resort with a loyal following, just across the U.S. border in Tecate, Baja California, Mexico. The resort frequently garners honors from those on the spa circuit, who flock to this rustic-meets-luxury destination in droves.

And what’s not to like? A 3,000-acre, carefully-landscaped campus that pays homage to the area the resort calls home: Mexican-Colonial-inspired buildings, brick paths, and vibrant ceramic tiles. Guest can partake in early hikes up Mount Kuchumaa, hourly exercise classes, afternoon creative pursuits, elegantly-prepared food with a plant-based focus, culturally relevant cooking classes, an off-the-hook organic garden tended to by a plant poet, and still have plenty of time and space for quiet, reflection, and pampering.

Morning mountain walks make for a healthy breakfast appetite. Photo: Courtesy of Rancho La Puerta

The place is misnamed, perhaps: Given its emphasis on mind, body, and soul it might best be called a holistic wellness center. No matter what you call it, the ranch — as regulars have dubbed it — offers all comers the opportunity to find their bliss. As you might expect, it is a popular vacation pick among Bay Area vacation-goers.

For a price. A stay at the resort will set paying guests back $3,000-$4,750 a week, depending on type of accommodations and time of year. That’s a far cry from when the ranch opened in 1940 and guests spent $17.50 a week for the privilege of pitching a tent by the river to enjoy nature, eat well, and contemplate the meaning of life. (Full disclosure: This writer attended the resort as a guest of Romney Steele, author of My Nepenthe and Plum Gorgeous, who served as the ranch’s guest chef instructor for the week.)

Back in the beginning the ranch went by a different name, and was then run by 34-year-old Edmond Szekeley, a Hungarian Jew and philosopher seeking refuge across the border, and his 18-year-old bride Deborah. It was dubbed a cult by a visiting reporter.

The dining room chef and his kitchen crew at Rancho La Puerta. Photo: Lynne Harty

A long-time guest — some devotees have been dozens and dozens of times — told this writer that it went through a hippie phase in the 1960s and 70s (think lentil loaf), and may have had a fat farm vibe at one time (weigh ins and that sort of thing) before settling comfortably into its current incarnation as a kind of year-round camp for active, well-to-do grown-ups who watch what they eat.

(It’s also a popular stop on the guest cheffing circuit for Bay Area-based food folks like Peggy Knickerbocker and Tanya Holland. Other locals recently spotted at the ranch offering expert instruction include writing coach Dianne Jacob and life coach Emily Boorstein Wikman.)

As for that teenage bride? She went on to make a name for herself in the spa and fitness world, government service, and philanthropic circles, turns 90 in May, kept the ranch in the family, and serves as role model for aging with purpose, pleasure, and grace.

Today, the ranch is a place where people can choose exercise classes like pilates, yoga, and water workouts. It also features alternative healing treatments including the hydro therapy watsu, craniosacral massage, and the subtle movement practice known as feldenkrais. (The latter prompted perhaps the most hilarious line of the week: When asked by the feldenkrais practitioner to note any physical changes after practicing the method one wag responded: “I think my shoes changed color.”)

There’s also tennis, volleyball, dance, gym circuit classes, along with art instruction, life coaching, reflective practices such as meditation, nutrition lectures, entertainment in the evening, and oh, spa treatments, of course.

In short, you can knock yourself out burning calories every hour on the hour or you can hide out in a hammock or loll in lounge chairs at one of the many pools and not lift a finger.
For the active guest, all that exercise makes for a hearty appetite. The majority of the ranch’s cuisine, a mix of Mediterranean and Mexican influences, comes courtesy of the organically grown fruits and vegetable from the on-site garden. Largely vegetarian in nature with some seafood offerings, the ranch caters to vegans and the gluten-free too.

The operating premise in the kitchen: low-fat, high-flavor, whole grain, lean protein, and modest portions, which prompted this writer, on the go six hours or more a day, to repeatedly ask for seconds (graciously accommodated with no raised eyebrows or judgments attached).

There are nods to health food trends — chia seed, nutritional yeast, and flax seed are served up in small bowls for those who like to consume — but it’s essentially homegrown food simply and well prepared with generous use of herbs and aromatics to satisfy discerning palates.

Highlights from the Dining Room menu include nods to the region, such as Braised Fish Taco with Cabbage Slaw and Pico De Gallo, Roasted Nopalitos Salad with Panela Cheese and Cilantro Vinaigrette, Chiles Rellenos with Green Pasilla Rice and Chayote Gratin with Black Lentils. But any of the sauteed, roasted, braised garden greens and root vegetables made this eater happy.

Desserts seem a bit of an afterthought — with the exception of the Flan de la Casa with Seasonal Fruit Compote, a smooth dark chocolate treat — but it’s hard to feel deprived here when the food is so satisfying and filling.

La Cocina que Conta chef Denise Roa in the ranch's organic garden. Photo: Lynne Harty

Each week ranch guests have the option of walking over to the resort’s organic garden, a farm really, for a tour and breakfast cooked by the culinary school crew. Once there, it’s hard not to be enchanted by the enthusiasm for all things edible of the chief horticulturist, Salvador Tinnajero, who has tended the farm for more than two decades.

Tinnajero constantly picks produce and encourages guests to take a bite, sniffs soil as he runs it through his palms, talks philosophically about the need to share the land with critters, while figuring out tricks that prevent them from eating too many of his crops. A man of the land who firmly believes edibles have personalities, one guest dubbed him the plant whisperer.

The garden is next to the ranch’s cooking school and culinary center, Lo Cocina que Canta (“The Kitchen That Sings”), where new executive chef Denise Roa, a Mexican-American restauranteur, shares her culture and cuisine with guests. It’s also where guest chefs like Steele conduct cooking classes in a beautifully-appointed kitchen.

Romney Steele and cooking school chef Gabriela Lopez Alvarez survey the results of students work. Photo: Lynne Harty

Romney Steele and cooking school chef Gabriela Lopez Alvarez survey the results of students work. Photo: Lynne Harty

Steele’s sold-out Thursday evening class last week featured foods mostly foraged from the garden — including whole roasted baby beets, roots and all — along with local dairy and seafood. A spontaneous cook, Steele and the kitchen team candied hibiscus to serve with a Buttermilk Panna Cotta. Ranch-grown kumquats brightened a whole-grain dish, cauliflower, small and sweet enough to eat raw, was only enhanced by roasting with cumin, and tossing with cilantro and pomegranate.

The place’s magic seems to work. During the course of the week this reporter witnessed guests slowing down, trying new things, reaching beyond their comfort zone, vowing to make changes back home, and reflecting on or healing emotional wounds.

Those secrets, however, stay at the ranch.

The secret ingredients in the spa’s legendary guacamole recipe? That this writer can share.

Aztec Gaucamole is a big hit at the ranch. Photo: Courtesy Rancho La Puerta

Aztec Guacamole

From Cooking with the Seasons at Rancho La Puerta

(Ranch regulars have come to expect the spa’s signature guacamole, which is dished up early on in the week at a soiree in the main lounge.)

*** Makes 2 cups ***

Perhaps the Ranch’s most popular recipe, the addition of green peas to the avocado-based dip boosts the nutritional value of the guacamole and reduces the fat content. Good with tacos or an assortment of crunchy, raw vegetables.

Ingredients:

1 cup of frozen peas, slightly thawed
1 medium hass avocado, peeled and pitted
2 tablespoons fresh lime or lemon juice, to taste
1 medium tomato, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 jalapeno or serrano chile, seeded and minced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon minced fresh garlic
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

Instructions:

1. In a blender or in the bowl of a food processor, process the peas until smooth.
2. In a medium bowl, mash avocado with a fork or potato masher.
3. Add the juice, tomato, onion, jalapeno, cilantro, garlic, salt and pepper.
4. Add the peas and mix well.
5. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the guacamole to prevent browning, if the dish won’t be served immediately.

Variation: Use 1 cup of well-cooked broccoli, edamame, or cooked asparagus tips instead of peas.

This post originally appeared on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Sheryl February 24, 2012 at 7:59 am

Loved reading about “the ranch.” I’ve been to their other property, Golden Door, in Escondido, Calif. I must say it is one of my very favorite places anywhere! The staff and the facilities are perfection, as is the food and the vast array of fitness choices. Hopefully one day I’ll get to see where it all began…in Mexico.

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Sarah Henry February 24, 2012 at 2:53 pm

Lucky you, Sheryl, for having the chance to spend time at the Golden Door. I hear it’s quite the treat.

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Alisa Bowman February 24, 2012 at 9:19 am

It sounds truly wonderful. I would LOVE to go to this place sometime.
Alisa Bowman´s last [type] ..He Thinks He’s Smarter Than She Is

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Sarah Henry February 24, 2012 at 2:53 pm

I think you’d enjoy yourself, Alisa.

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Brette Sember February 24, 2012 at 10:25 am

I am going to try this with the peas – it’s a great idea. Sounds like a wonderful place to visit to rejuvenate.

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Sarah Henry February 24, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Let me know, Brette, what you think of the ranch’s guacamole.

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Casey@Good. Food. Stories. February 24, 2012 at 1:28 pm

I’m not an athletic, coordinated person in the least, but this sounds so inspiring! (The food, of course, is a big draw too – I could never go anywhere I couldn’t eat well.)
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last [type] ..To Dream of Caramel

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Sarah Henry February 24, 2012 at 2:56 pm

There’s an activity to suit most tastes, methinks, Casey. Finding what you like to do is part of the fun, even if I found myself returning to my favorite pastimes — hiking, dancing, and stretching and strengthening classes.

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Alexandra February 25, 2012 at 7:21 am

OMG! You had my mouth watering and my body aching for this place. How fortunate you were to visit. I will remember those tips on guac and hot chocolate. Thanks for sharing.
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Wellfleet Clams, For Sale at Whole Foods

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Sarah Henry February 25, 2012 at 4:19 pm

Worth a visit, Sandy, worth a visit, that’s for sure.

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Maurine Killough February 25, 2012 at 9:53 am

I’m so jealous! I’ve been wanting to go there for years. You probably know Toni Allegra too, who also goes down there. If you are lucky, maybe Michelle Hebert and/or Mehrad Nazari will be teaching yoga…they are the BEST!
Your article just underscores my desire to go there some day! Thanks for the post!

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Sarah Henry February 25, 2012 at 4:23 pm

Hi Maurine, Nice to see you here. Yes, I know Toni, who was instrumental in getting the ranch’s cooking school up and running. I do hope a ranch visit is in the works for you — and that it coincides with a week when a favorite yoga instructor is there too.

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Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart February 25, 2012 at 1:05 pm

I could not be more jealous. What I would NOT give for a getaway.
Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart´s last [type] ..Update: Lilly Neurology Recheck from February 23, 2012

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Sarah Henry February 25, 2012 at 4:19 pm

I hear ya, Rox. Hang in there. I hope a vacation this relaxing is in your future.

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merr February 26, 2012 at 8:54 am

I have heard amazing things about the Ranch. It looks lovely. That recipe sounds great, too. Am bookmarking it!

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Sarah Henry February 27, 2012 at 9:45 am

Enjoy the dip. It’s quite addictive.

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Jane Boursaw February 26, 2012 at 11:57 am

I’m still musing on butternut squash and hot chocolate together. I love both of those things, so could definitely glom onto that combination. And poor you, having to take such an awful assignment!

Jane from Snowy Michigan
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..Is The Artist Worthy of a Best Picture Oscar?

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Sarah Henry February 27, 2012 at 9:45 am

Sigh, I know, I know, Jane. Sometimes the tough gigs just come your way.

Are you digging out over there?

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Living Large February 26, 2012 at 1:10 pm

What a wonderful retreat. I’m jealous too!

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Sarah Henry February 27, 2012 at 9:47 am

It is good, living large, to take some time away from the relentless deadline mill.
Though, it must be said, tough to get back to your old groove after some R’n’R too.

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miriam February 27, 2012 at 7:20 am

Very jealous, sounds so great. Thanks for the recipe!

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Sarah Henry February 27, 2012 at 9:48 am

Maybe we can take a trip to Tecate together one day, Miriam. A girl can dream.

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Anne Brasfield February 27, 2012 at 11:00 am

Loved meeting you and hiking with you at “the ranch”. Also enjoyed re-living my week through your article. Missing it!

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Sarah Henry February 27, 2012 at 11:59 am

Lovely to find you here, Anne. I enjoyed our early morning mountain walks too.
Thanks for chiming in. Same time next year?

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Jill Silverman Hough February 27, 2012 at 1:55 pm

My annual visit to the ranch, as one of their visiting culinary instructors, is something I look forward to all year long! Thank you for helping to spread the word about this amazing place, Sarah!
Jill Silverman Hough´s last [type] ..Mom’s big red Le Creuset pot

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Sarah Henry February 28, 2012 at 9:44 am

Curious to hear, Jill, what kind of cooking classes you teach at the ranch? Nice to learn about another culinary instructor from the Bay Area who frequents RLP.

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Jill Silverman Hough February 28, 2012 at 10:51 am

No subject in particular, Sarah, just simple – healthy, delicious, garden-centric cooking – which, between their cooking and their gardens, it’s easy to find inspiration for.

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Sarah Henry February 29, 2012 at 10:16 am

Sounds like a perfect match for the setting, Jill.

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Jill Silverman Hough February 29, 2012 at 10:58 am
MyKidsEatSquid March 1, 2012 at 7:02 pm

I love the idea of pureed peas in guac–brilliant. I’m wondering, tho, why they didn’t use a molcajete instead of a food processor? You could use mine for weight training, but it gives the guac a different texture and flavor that I like.

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Sarah Henry March 26, 2012 at 8:37 am

Good question, MKES. Maybe because at the spa they’re dealing with such large quantities? I will ask and report back.

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Jeanine Barone March 6, 2012 at 9:38 pm

Sounds like a perfect place for me: lots of activities to choose from, an idyllic setting and healthy cuisine to satisfy foodies.

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Sarah Henry March 26, 2012 at 8:37 am

Yes, Jeanine, I suspect active you would revel in this rustic resort.

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