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