FOOD : Garden Delights From a Legendary Spa : At Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Meals Are Organically Grown : and Imaginatively Prepared

Irene Borget is a Los Angeles writer.

IN 1940,TRANSYLVANIA nobleman Edmond Bordeaux Szekely and his young bride, Deborah, opened a health resort, Rancho La Puerta, in Tecate, Mexico. Guests hiked, worked in the organic garden, ate fresh fruits, vegetables and whole-grain bread and paid $17.50 per week.

Hiking in the clear mountain air at the ranch is now one of the scores of activities that range from Absolutely Abdominals to Water Volleyball. Guests no longer work in the garden (they're too busy getting facials, massages and herbal wraps), but once again much of the produce comes right off the land. Ranch visitors are still served copious vegetarian meals (with fish on the menu twice a week), while the cost of a week's stay now tops the $1,000 mark.

Two years ago, after completing an extensive building program that replaced rather rustic living accommodations with folk-art-decorated villas, the two Szekely children, Alex and Livia, decided to revive the organic gardening that had been discontinued many years before. They brought a young horticulturist, Jonathan Frei, down to Mexico to start Rancho Tres Estrellas garden on the rocky, chaparral-laden high desert.

The garden, now three cultivated acres, is a Technicolor dream--as if Kansas had become Oz. Filled with everything from 10 kinds of greens (including arugula, radicchio , several kinds of endives and escaroles, and mache ) to 120 varieties of flowers, white eggplant, and purple beans with yellow stripes, the garden also yields cornucopian loads of jewel-toned fruit.

The colors of the tomatoes alone would fill an impressionist's palette: Big yellow tomatoes are called "Lemon Boy" and "Taxi." The tiny saffron ones are known as "Yellow Marbles"; a flame-colored breed is "Golden Jubilee."

"I like diversification: herbs, vegetables, tree crops, perennials," Frei says. "It's boring to work with just one or two things. And why, if you're really interested in agriculture and living things, would you want to surround yourself with pesticides? Our system at Tres Estrellas works with the naturally occurring elements in nature, with compost. There are over 5 billion microbes in a handful of soil."

Now 32, Frei, son of a Yale professor of religion, studied agriculture in college before apprenticing himself to a number of farmers and nurserymen throughout the United States. Moving to California to work at the Frey winery in Mendocino, one of the two organic vineyards in the state (marrying into the family with the coincidental sound-alike name), Frei learned of the job at Rancho la Puerta "through the alternative-agriculture grapevine."

Six months after he began planning the garden, another Young Turk, the new executive chef and director of food and beverages, Joe D. Cochran Jr., arrived. The two men worked together to revitalize the ranch's kitchen from the ground up.

Cochran, who has worked in restaurants since he was 14 years old, developed Alternative Cuisine, the spa-food menu for the Four Seasons Hotel chain, becoming, at 27, its youngest full-fledged chef. Now 32, and having been at Rancho La Puerta since early 1986, he's in harvest heaven 12 months of the year.

"I will never have the opportunity to cook with these kinds of products again. The tomatoes, the garlic, even things like cilantro, are the best I've ever seen. Jonathan's planted every herb known to man--and then some. I'd never seen one variety of basil-- piccolocino --with tiny little leaves before. I'm using vegetables and herbs I'd never even heard about--like romanesco, a cross between cauliflower and broccoli--so I've been doing research and creating new recipes."

Breakfast and lunch at the Ranch are served buffet style and guests can help themselves to seconds. And thirds. (Dinner, served by waiters, is expandable too.) But calories are posted, and for those who are interested in following it, the standard plan comes out to 1,000 calories per day. (Extra-calorie items like Persian Pancakes and Whole-Wheat Pizza have asterisks next to their names.)

To keep the calories down--and the cuisine healthy--Cochran uses neither fat nor salt. This classically trained chef relies on alternative cooking methods, such as "sauteing with vegetable stock" (he prepares two 40-gallon pots of fresh stock each day). Reduced fruit juices (apples, pears, bananas, pineapple) replace sugar in desserts. Frozen fruit, put through a juicer, substitutes for ice cream. Fresh herbs with pureed cucumbers are one salad-dressing trick. Dark-purple grapes and mint are two of Cochran's flavored vinegars. With textures and look important, too, Cochran serves tiny tomatillos in their jackets and grinds blue corn for his muffins, offering them with yogurt-swirled fresh-fruit purees.

Guests will be able to choose from an even more remarkable selection of fruits in the near future when Jonathan Frei's orchard of mandarin oranges, pineapple guavas, Asian pears, various cherries and 28 varieties of apples begins to bear fruit next year. The apples include a 19th-Century rosy-fleshed Pink Pearl and Frei's own favorite, the English dessert variety, Cox's Orange Pippin.

Visiting the kitchen about twice a week and planning the garden with chef Cochran's needs in mind, Frei says: "We're trying to make things as exciting as possible. We grow more flavorful varieties, experiment with exotic breeds, plant old heirloom seeds--old varieties that are being rediscovered, open pollination it's called. In a sense, it's the gardeners who are dictating changes these days to the restaurant world."

SWEET-POTATO SOUFFLES 1 pound sweet potatoes1 cup orange juice1 cinnamon stick1 teaspoon vanilla cup honeyPlain yogurt6 egg whites cup chopped pecans Peel and slice sweet potatoes. Place in saucepan with orange juice, cinnamon stick, vanilla and just enough water to cover. Simmer slowly until potatoes are very tender. Remove cinnamon stick and drain any liquid which remains.

Place potatoes in food processor, add honey and puree until smooth. Brush inside of 12 (6-ounce) souffle cups with yogurt. Whip egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold egg whites and pecans into sweet potatoes.

Spoon about 1/2 cup mixture into each souffle cup. Bake in water bath at 350 degrees 20 to 30 minutes. Makes 12 servings.

RANCH PASTA ROULADE Non-stick vegetable spray1 clove garlic, minced 1/2 cup quartered mushrooms1 cup packed fresh spinach, coarsely chopped cup grated Parmesan cheese cup cottage cheese1 ounce finely chopped basilAncho Chile, Tomato and Tomatillo SauceFreshly cracked pepper2 (6-inch) whole wheat pasta sheets1 ounce low-sodium, low-fat mozzarella cheese Spray non-stick skillet with vegetable spray. Saute garlic, mushrooms and spinach until spinach is wilted. Sprinkle half the Parmesan cheese over mixture and fold in along with cottage cheese, basil, cup Ancho Chile, Tomato and Tomatillo Sauce and pepper to taste.

Cook pasta sheets al dente in boiling water about 5 minutes. Spread half the mixture onto each pasta sheet and roll up tightly. Spray 2 ramekins with non-stick vegetable spray. Place 1 pasta roll in each dish. Top with remaining cup sauce, Parmesan cheese and mozzarella cheese. Bake at 350 degrees 20 to 30 minutes, until cheese is golden brown. Makes 2 servings.

Ancho Chile, Tomato and Tomatillo Sauce pound tomatillos2 tablespoons chopped onion1 tablespoon minced garlic 1/2 cup vegetable stock or cocktail vegetable juice1 tablespoon dried ancho chile, rehydrated and chopped1 small tomato, diced teaspoon minced jalapeno pepperLemon juicePepper Remove husks from tomatillos and place on broiler pan. Broil, turning to char all sides. Saute garlic and onion in vegetable stock in saucepan until translucent. Add tomatillos, ancho chile, tomato, jalapeno pepper and remaining vegetable stock. Season to taste with lemon juice and pepper. Bring to boil, reduce heat and cook until mixture is reduced to cup. Pour into food processor or blender and puree.

Photographed by Joan Vanderschuit / Food Stylist Pam Smith

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World