Wing it

 

Guests of Rancho la Puerta prepare a lavish dinner at La Cocina que Canta.

Will work for food: Guests of Rancho la Puerta prepare a lavish dinner at La Cocina que Canta.

Because food is so central to the experience at Rancho la Puerta, and guests often want to learn how to make all that great food at home, The Ranch opened an on-site cooking school and culinary center: La Cocina que Canta on the grounds of Tres Estrellas organic garden last year. Of course, I was eager to check it out.

Located on the grounds of The Ranch’s expansive Tres Estrellas organic garden, La Cocina features a

Students check out the garden before cooking

Students check out the garden before cooking

 large demonstration kitchen that also offers ample space for students to cook hands-on. I’ll take a hands-on class over a demonstration any day, and, it appeared, so did about a dozen of my fellow guests, who also signed up for the 3 1/2-hour class. We gathered in the kitchen under the tutelage of Deborah Schneider, a San Diego-based chef who specializes in Baja California cuisine and is the co-author of Cooking with the Seasons at Rancho la Puerta. After watching a brief demonstration of basic knife skills, we divided up to prepare the eight recipes (some folks worked in teams on the more involved dishes) that would comprise our supper. There was a salad, of course, a Mexican-style lasagna (with tortillas and ancho-chile salsa standing in for pasta and tomato sauce), chiles rellenos, pinto beans, a quinoa salaed, chocolate sorbet, and almond cookies. 

 

While other students gravitated to the recipes, I decided to take up the No-Recipe Soup from the Garden. A bowl of vegetables plucked from the garden  and a few scribbled suggestions were offered as inspiration. I enjoy improvising, and the ingredients were good, so I couldn’t go too far wrong. I set about chopping onions, garlic, and celery; peeling, seeding, and cubing butternut squash; and chopping up a couple of apples. Healthy cooking requires getting well-acquainted with your chef’s knife. Chef Schneider stopped by my station as I sliced, and diced, and chopped.

 

Chef Schneider at the stove

Chef Schneider at the stove

“What do you think you’ll do?” she asked.

 

I had some ideas. “I think I’ll roast the squash in the oven, saute the aromatics in a pot, then add the squash and apples and some broth and let it cook.”

“I don’t think we’ll have enough time to do that,” she replied. “How about if we layer the ingredients in a pot and cook it that way?”

I’m all for simplicity, and a chance to learn something new. So, here’s the recipe, although, it’s not really a recipe, since the amounts aren’t precise, and you can use whatever is on hand. This is what we made (I’d halve the amounts when I make this at home), and it would be a terrific addition to any holiday spread:

You don't always need a recipe to make a great soup.

No-Recipe Soup from the Garden

1. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Layer 2 chopped onions, 3 minced garlic cloves, 4 chopped celery stalks, and about 1 tablespoons of peeled and chopped ginger in the bottom of the pan. Top with 2 peeled, seeded, and chopped butternut squash. Cut out a circle of parchment paper large enough to cover the vegetables; lay the parchment paper directly over the vegetables. This allows them to steam and sweat and soften. Cover the pot and cook 15 minutes or until the squash begins to get tender.

2. Uncover the pot; discard the parchment paper. Add 2 peeled and chopped apples. Add enough vegetable broth (homemade is ideal) or water to cover by 1 to 2 inches. Reduce heat, cover, and cook 30 minutes or until squash is tender. Puree in batches in a blender or food processor (or use an immersion blender to puree it in the pot). Add and additional 1 tablespoon peeled, chopped ginger; puree. Add salt and black pepper to taste, along with any other spices you like–fresh nutmeg, perhaps, or ground cumin. You also could stir in a little Sriracha or sambal oelek. Whatever suits your mood works here.

Yield: A hell of a lot (we didn’t measure it, but I’d guess this made about 12 cups).

Back from the Ranch

 

Lunchtime offerings at Rancho la Puerta typically include a stellar salad, like this one made with roasted beets and medallions of goat cheese. Yum!

Lunchtime offerings at Rancho la Puerta typically include a stellar salad, like this one made with roasted beets and medallions of goat cheese. Yum!

I’ve just returned from a week’s stay at Rancho la Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. It was a nice little item I’d bid on and won at a charity auction last year because I’d always dreamed of going. So my pal Hillari and I made the long journey, arriving under cover of darkness (she found the trip winding along San Diego County’s quiet backcountry roads toward the border crossing in Tecate a tad unnerving, or at least carsick-inducing).

The week was all I’d hoped for–relaxing, with lots of opportunities for early morning hikes on

When you start the day with a brisk hike up a desert mountain, you feel fine about eating as much as you want.

When you start the day with a brisk hike up a desert mountain, you feel fine about eating as much as you want.

desert mountain trails, plenty of yoga, and other classes to sample. The special poetry workshop was a pleasant surprise, as were the qi gong sessions. The chance to learn about healing touch and colors, and to craft my very own prayer arrow (basically yarn wrapped around a stick with some feathers and a crystal) was fun, but I’m still a skeptic.

Certainly, a standout highlight was the food. The overriding philosophy at The Ranch is to enjoy lots of fresh fruits and vegetables at every meal. Ideally, in every dish. Butternut squash was the veggie of the week. It seemed the gardeners at the Ranch’s Tres Estrellas organic garden had a bumper crop this fall and the chefs found ways to include it in almost every meal. I even had a Mayan Chocolate Sorbet that incorporated the stuff, and it was delicious. Whatever was served, guests were welcome to enjoy as much or as little as they wished. I didn’t hesitate to ask for an extra fish taco (awesome!) and always pushed away from the table contentedly full. In general, The Ranch’s chefs hit a home run when they prepared Mexican and Mediterranean fare; their one foray into Asian wasn’t so successful.

Of course, I couldn’t resist picking up a copy of the new book Cooking with the Seasons at Rancho la Puerta by The Ranch’s founder, Deborah Szekely, and Chef Deborah M. Schneider, who often teaches at The Ranch’s new cooking school, La Cocina que Canta. Can’t wait to try the sorbet (for Thanksgiving, I think) and the fish tacos.

 

Marmalade rejects my handcrafted prayer arrow as a cat toy. Bitch.

Marmalade rejects my handcrafted prayer arrow as a cat toy. Bitch.

It’s all about the chow.

the culinary school at Rancho La Puerta.

La Cocina que Canta: the culinary school at Rancho La Puerta.

Am at Rancho la Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. RLP is the legendary spa started in the 1940s by the couple who later went on to found the ultra-luxurious Golden Door. It’s my first visit here (the first of many to come, I hope, assuming I win the lottery–good thing I’m moving from no-lottery Alabama to back to lottery-fevered California).

I’ll go into more detail when I return, but suffice to say it’s like an upscale camp for grown-ups. Lots of activities to choose from, do nothing at all, if you please.

One of the many highlights is the food, which is healthy, but tasty and filling. When the staff rings the mealtime bell, I come runnin’, just like Pavlov’s dog. The produce comes from the Ranch’s extensive organic garden (overseen by the delightful and enthusiastic Salvador, ) and the occasional seafood dish features fresh catch from nearby Ensenada.

So, this afternoon, it’s lunch, of course, followed by making prayer arrows this afternoon. I have no clue what that entails, but it’s bound to be crafty and spritual. In any case, Hillari wants one. Why, is a mystery.