Heaven in the Clouds

28 09 2010

The Pilgrim Hike

I may seem like the same person, but in a small, barely perceptible way, I am not. That is because I just spent a week at a transformative place.

I’ve just returned from Rancho La Puerta Spa, where I spent the week alternating between challenging mountain hikes and exercise classes, relaxing pool time and massages, and things like birdwatching. Three times a day I hot-footed it to the dining hall for world-class vegetarian spa fare. Of course, two days of that included teaching some cooking classes, but they were so fun that it hardly seemed like work.

For vegetarians and omnivores alike, the food is at the center of the rejuvenation and healing that Rancho La Puerta offers. Perched in the mountains of Tecate Mexico, the Ranch enjoys a Mediterranean climate, and can grow much of its own food. In fact, a four -mile hike featuring a tour of the immaculate organic garden is a big hit with most guests, even if they don’t till the soil at home.  Head gardener Salvador Tinajero tends six acres of gorgeous farmland, striped with bright flowers of pollinator rows, intended to draw beneficial insects.

The blossoms call out to bees and hummingbirds

The cooking classes all start with Salvador’s tour of the garden, and students get to pick some of the produce that will be used in class. We pulled some leeks, but the exciting part was picking the perfect, ripe strawberries we would use to garnish our dessert. I know I ate as many as I put in the basket. Local and sustainable is the mantra for food on the Ranch, so I put my menus together based on what would be in season.

Strawberries in September (and kitty)

The classes are hands on, which means that the guests dive in and cook the dishes themselves, with the guidance of the instructor and three assistants. It’s really a blast, as everybody gets caught up in turning the garden’s bounty into a tasty dinner or lunch.

My talented sous-chefs

Pear and Apple Salad with Nasturtiums

But what was absolutely the most relaxing thing about the Ranch was the fact that someone else made me three delicious, satisfying organic vegetarian meals every day. I didn’t so much as pass a grocery store or slice a banana. I’m still looking for my sliced papaya every morning-the tree ripened, deep orange fruit was served alongside a breakfast buffet of fruits and muesli, and it was a world apart from the papaya we get here. Hot cereals, little omelets and an array of other goodies helped us fuel up for the day. Lunch buffets served up beautiful compositions in salad, bowls of veggie soup and things like tostadas or a light “local cheese” sandwich with caramelized onions. Dinner was fine dining, with beautifully plated salads, lush soups and carefully garnished and composed main courses. Perfectly portioned desserts closed the meal, on white plates dabbed and drizzled with colorful sauces.

Chiles Rellenos, RLP-style

Of course, having someone make low-fat veg food and then portion it out to create a 1500 calorie day means you can just enjoy the heck out of it and not even think. The Ranch has a nutritionist on staff to analyze the meals, and Chef Gonzalo Mendoza has a talent for making sure the food leaves you not just satisfied, but happy. The plates are a feast for the eyes, and a deft handling of textures and flavors transforms the just picked foods into genuinely gourmet treats.

A week of this pampering left me relaxed and invigorated. Everyone is so happy at the Ranch, from the people who work there to the guests, and there is nothing to do but be good to yourself.

So, if you want a great spa getaway, check out the Rancho La Puerta. From what I hear, it’s one of the best values in the world of spas. If that is not in the budget, take a look at the Rancho La Puerta Cookbook. You can always decide to eat spa for a week at home, and nourish yourself just like spa-goers do.

Now if I could bring Mount Kuchumaa home, then I would be all set.


King Kabocha

21 09 2010

When Fall weather starts blowing in, signaling the icy times to come, there is one consolation. Beautiful sweet winter squashes start piling up at the market, where we can pick from an astonishing array of shapes, sizes and colors. The colossal Hubbard dwarfs the petite Sweet Dumpling, while the curvy Butternut lounges provocatively next to the opulent Turban. I love them all, but there is one squash I reach for again and again.


Sometimes called Japanese pumpkin, the squat, round kabocha is dark green and often streaked with lighter green, but always kind of bumpy. It looks like a buttercup, without the cup, if you know what they look like.

Non-squash lovers don’t understand that there are big differences between squashes. All have their ultimate uses. What I love about the kabocha is it’s dry, fluffy flesh, which is dense and sweet. For making gnocchi, or baking, the lower moisture content is a real benefit. A gnocchi made with wet butternut squash will require too much flour, which will make it tough and mute the squash flavor.

So, the healthy benes of kabocha are basically those of orange vegetables. Packed with Vitamin A, a cup of squash has 145% of your daily requirement. That cup of squash also provides 33% of your C, 25% of your potassium, 24% of your fiber, 24% of your manganese, and 15-to 10% of the b-vitamins Folate, B1, B3, B6 and B5. Eating squash has been linked with lower rates of lung cancer, a healthy prostate, and overall good health.

There are all kinds of ways to prepare a kabocha, but for a beginner, I recommend a simple puree. First, preheat the oven to 400 F, and lightly oil a sheet pan. Using a big chef’s knife, cut the squash in half and scoop out the seeds. If this seems daunting, I have a few tips. First, use the backside of your chef’s knife, the wide, unsharpened side, to give the stem a hard whack. Hopefully the chunk of stem will pop right off, so you can cut the squash easily. If you have a big, hard squash, you can put it in the oven for ten minutes, to soften the skin a bit.


Put the halves, cut sides down, on the baking sheet and bake for 30-40 minutes, depending on the size. When a paring knife slides in with no resistance, take out the squash and let it cool. Use a spatula to turn them over, they will cool faster.

Look at that sugar!

When cool, scoop the flesh into a food processor and puree. You will notice that the squash is so dense it almost bogs down the motor.

At this point you can add some liquid, depending on your desired dish. I like to whip in some miso and orange juice or rice vinegar, and serve it as a side. You might be up for some cream or milk, or stock, to make a quick soup. It’s perfect for simmering with some spices and sweetener for a squash butter, you can use maple syrup or honey, since the squash it already thick. If you want to bake with it, just scrape down and puree.

Lush, Sweet, Delicious!

The thick, sweet kabocha is a treat, however you use it. Enjoy!

Pat Yourselves on the Back America, Good Job!

14 09 2010

Good News about the American Diet!

Golden, Glowing Wheat

The bad news about the way America eats has been piling up, from our obesity crisis to our uninspected egg producers selling unsafe eggs. We are about due for some positive news, and thankfully, it is here.

For years, whole grain lovers like myself have been spreading the word about the benefits of eating unrefined grains. People have been slow to change, even as the momentum built, with the USDA getting on board with their recommendations in 2007, and major manufacturers spending millions to promote their healthy whole grain products.

But we have reached a tipping point. For the first time EVER, whole wheat bread sales beat white. Yes, according to Nielson Co, whole wheat sales hit $2.6 billion, while white dropped to 2.5 billion.

Take a minute to applaud yourselves, people. As much as we, as a people, love our junky foods, we are capable of absorbing a message and making a change. We had some help, as the companies that make the breads have been engineering their products to be more palatable every day. New products like “White Whole Wheat,” a whole wheat flour that is paler in color, have helped the cause. Why alarm anyone with brown bread?

The survey also found that the biggest growth was in whole wheat breads that were labeled as “natural” or as having EFA’s or some other healthy ingredient. Within the industry, the news that the top sellers are the healthy ones will lead to more good whole wheat products. When it sells, they make more.

One consumer at a time, one loaf at a time, the myth that whole wheat tastes bad is being debunked. The baby boomers are going whole wheat, and the children of today are growing up with whole wheat as a normal part of life.

This is good news. Eating just three servings a day of whole grains significantly reduces the risks of all kinds of cancers, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and a host of ills. Prepared whole wheat bread is one of the easiest ways to get your whole grains, and just three slices a day makes a difference.

So congratulations, America, you are moving in the right direction.

It’s so good to hear that we can make changes for the better, and feel better for it!

Molasses Whole Wheat Bread on FoodistaMolasses Whole Wheat Bread