Bringing Spa Cuisine Home
Rancho La Puerta’s proprietor pioneered healthy eating. Now she teaches guests how to keep food simple.
Guidelines for the cooking school are set by Denise Roa, the head of the program: no sugar but agave syrup, no flour in the gluten-free classes, no butter, no deep frying. Teachers arrive for a week or sometimes two, participating in the ranch’s programs of hiking, swimming, Pilates, and other forms of exercise, and teaching three classes per week: one demonstration and two hands-on. The hands-on classes are mostly vegetarian, with an occasional fish dish; at least one class is gluten-free. Roa and her staff also lead a set of classes.
The school brings in chefs and cookbook writers from around the United States, chosen for their recipes and teaching ability. These teachers do not, however, specialize in “spa cuisine” normally; before they arrive, Roa gives them a list of the extraordinary seasonal produce growing that week in the ranch’s organic garden, tended by Salvador Tinajero. Before the 20 or so students assemble for the hands-on classes, the mostly Mexican staff preps about eight recipes—typically low-fat and vegetarian, and easy to cook at home.
For David Cohen—partner and consulting chef for Eye Spy Critiquing and Consulting, who was teaching when I was there most recently—working at the ranch’s kitchen is often a challenge; most chefs usually cook for flavor, not for fat-obsessed diners. “I am very health- and nutrition-conscious, so the challenge becomes not to cook with all the butter and the fat we associate with restaurants, and the flavor comes naturally from the garden,” Cohen said. “The less we do with the food, the more flavorful it is.”
At Cohen’s class, we made a gluten-free vegetable and hibiscus enchilada with chipotle pepper sauce; a vegan carrot cake held together by rice and corn flours, with a soy “cream cheese” frosting; and a delicious and colorful cauliflower, cashew, and pea salad that has now become part of my new cooking repertoire. “I didn’t have to change that recipe that much, just cutting down on the sweetener,” he said. “The most challenging and fun part is to use the freshest ingredients of the garden. That is so much of what the ranch is about.”
Amelia Saltsman, author of The Santa Monica Farmer’s Market Cookbook, has also taught at the ranch. “The way I source food means that there is very little that I need to change,” said Saltsman, who has been teaching at the ranch for the past four years. “Sourcing from the garden or from a good farmer’s market means that the ingredients are so natural, you just want to highlight the goodness,” she said.
Starting with raw ingredients, Saltsman finds she needs little adapting. “When it comes to desserts, I just sear off fruit and let the fruit shine,” she added. “Many of our older recipes use a lot more sweetener than is necessary, especially when you are buying top of the season peaches or nectarines. When food is carefully grown and picked when it is ripe, you are going for flavor. And it means that cooking can be simpler.”
At the end of the week, you sometimes lose a few pounds at the ranch, but better than that, you can take a few ideas that will extend to your everyday life. I am reminded of it every time I taste the ranch’s signature broccoli and pea guacamole at another dinner party in Washington, D.C., thousands of miles away from the spa.
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