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Worth the Trip / Three Baja Destinations for Food and Wine Lovers

Just five minutes across the U.S.-Mexico border in the town of Tecate lies the 3,000-acre Rancho La Puerta, a spa where the overworked and stressed-out have recharged for nearly 70 years among the cactus, white sage and untrimmed palms.

When Deborah Szekely founded the ranch with her then-husband, Edmond, in 1940, they charged $17.50 a week to camp on the grounds, and guests were required to work in the garden. Tecate is now 15 times larger, and spa-going has become ubiquitous, but at Rancho La Puerta some things have stayed the same.

The ranch remains activity-oriented, with dance, yoga and tai chi classes and daily mountain hikes, but Szekely has enhanced the original concept with a new cooking program and 4,500-square-foot culinary center called La Cocina Que Canta, “The Kitchen That Sings.”

“I think we have a moral obligation to teach our guests how to eat,” Szekely says, so students cook what they harvest from the ranch’s 6-acre organic garden. La Cocina chef Jesus Gonzalez points out the obvious benefits: Local food tastes better because it retains its nutrients.

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He and his staff teach the twice-a-day classes four times a week. The focus is on what Gonzalez calls Baja-Mediterranean cuisine, and all recipes are approved by an on-site nutritionist. No meat or poultry are used, so the creative menus are planned to satisfy the requirements of a 1,500- to 1,800-calorie modified vegetarian diet. The recipes are meant to emphasize the freshness of the food rather than disguise the natural flavors with salt or heavy sauces.

Gonzalez grouped the 16 students into teams of two. His introduction was brief. “The most important thing is that I don’t want you to be afraid to change things,” he said. As he went over each of the 10 recipes, he discussed fresh substitutes that would work instead of the listed ingredients.

“You want to be able to use whatever you have,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t like to go to the grocery store.”

One team set to work preparing cantaloupe coconut gazpacho, but chipotle powder was substituted for chili powder, and ripe green apples replaced the usual cucumbers. Other students peeled mangoes, slathered yogurt on top of grilled oranges and sliced tortillas into triangles to toast in the oven. Gonzalez bustled from person to person, checking on their projects.

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At the end of the three-hour session, the class finally sat down to a savory meal of balsamic-covered roasted beets, poached shrimp with dill sauce, ranch guacamole and grilled spiced oranges with honey, yogurt and pistachios.

I asked Gonzalez if he was surprised by the renewed interest in kitchen gardens and cooking what you grow.

“In Mexico City, where I grew up, we always had a garden. For me, it’s normal.” Then he was interrupted by the arrival of a delivery van. The driver handed him a plastic bag with a large piece of white fish inside, still silvery and cool. He pressed it to my face. “See how fresh it is?” he asked. Even through the plastic, it smelled like the ocean. *

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Grilled Spiced Oranges With Kumquats, Honey Yogurt and Pistachios

From chef Jesus Gonzalez, La Cocina Que Canta, Rancho La Puerta

Serves 6

2 cups Greek-style plain yogurt

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5 large oranges

A few drops of orange flower water or rose water (optional)*

1/4 cup dark thyme or mesquite honey, divided

4 kumquats, thinly sliced

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Zest of 1 orange, in thin strips

3 tablespoons shelled pistachios, roughly chopped

One day before serving, drain the yogurt. Place a paper coffee filter in a strainer and set over a bowl. Pour the yogurt into the filter. Refrigerate for 24 hours; the yogurt will be very thick.

Heat the grill or broiler on high. Wash one orange. With a zester, remove the thin orange skin in long strips. (You may use a peeler and then cut the pieces into long, thin strips.) Set aside. Cut the top and bottom off another orange with a sharp knife. Then slice off the peel from top and bottom, following the curve of the fruit. Discard the peel, but reserve the juice. Peel the remaining oranges this way. Slice the peeled fruit in {dagger}-inch-thick rounds and place in a single layer, overlapping slightly, in a shallow baking dish. (Use two dishes if needed.) Sprinkle with orange flower water or rose water and the reserved juice. Drizzle half the honey over the oranges. Grill or broil until bubbly hot; the fruit will not brown. While the oranges are on the grill or under the broiler, whisk together the remaining honey and yogurt in a small bowl.

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To serve, evenly divide the orange slices among six small plates. Spoon any juices from the baking dish over the oranges. Top each with about a tablespoon of honey yogurt, kumquat slices, orange zest and chopped pistachios.

*Note: Flower water is sold at Middle Eastern markets. The aroma is pungent, so a few drops are enough to perfume the oranges.

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GUIDEBOOK

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Rancho La Puerta

Weeklong packages at Rancho La Puerta start at $2,690 (not including tax or tip) per person, double occupancy, and include transportation to and from the San Diego airport, meals, snacks and fitness classes. Guests can choose one or more Cocina classes ($125 each) or a four-class package ($425). Demonstration classes ($60) also are offered. For reservations, call (800) 443-7565 or go to www.rancholapuerta.com.


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