Baja Cooking on the Edge
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BAJA Cooking on the Edge

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Rancho La Puerta: Preface

I want to state, up front, that this is not a ‘diet cooking’ book. No, for this book we are going for nothing less than changing your life, or at least changing how you think about food and how you cook – which in the end, you’ll discover, is pretty much the same thing.

Chew on this: How you feel every day is directly related to what you put – or don’t put- into your body. In this book, our goal is feeling good: full of energy, vitality, creativity and – Deborah’s favorite word- joy . Food and cooking can be one of the great pleasures of your life. When you eat well and enjoy yourself, you’ll feel better. Well-being is not just about living a long life. It’s about feeling great for every beautiful, irreplaceable day of it.

Deborah Szekely  has always been well ahead of her time, from her first proto-organic garden at the foot of Mount Kuchumaa to her staunch refusal , even in the heyday of the fad diet, to buy into the idea that food is the enemy. Deborah’s philosophy was always about being well and feeling good rather than just dropping a dress size. She made it a point to make  fresh, simple, wonderful food , organically grown, central to the Ranch experience. What she began  was truly radical in the 1940. Today, six decades later, chefs and consumers are waking up to the reality that if we don’t move quickly to make changes to how we produce and use food, we’re in trouble – personally and globally.

I’ve cooked professionally for almost 30 years, and I hope to cook until they take me out of my kitchen feet first.  Cooking is the most fun I’ve ever had.  Every work day I get up, put on whites and head to my kitchen to see what the day brings. I thought I was master of my profession – until I started working on this book. The Ranch, you see, is all about transformation.

Into The Garden

I visited Rancho La Puerta and Tres Estrellas for the first time in August 1986, when I ventured south for a day to visit my friend Joe Cochran, who was then chef at the Ranch. In the course of our tour we stopped by Tres Estrellas, where Sarah Livia had started work that year on 2 acres of fallow Baja ranchland.

nder the blazing August sun, Joe proudly pointed out a patch of carefully tilled earth and a few gangly saplings drooping in the stifling heat. He went into great detail about Sarah’s master plan: hand-dug French intensive raised beds, all –organic composting, grass and clover paths – on this day the  few rows of greens seemed overwhelmed by the stony hillsides and relentless mountain winds. That afternoon Joe’s cooks scrubbed and peeled what looked like several thousand beets and picked over a few heads of  heat-scorched lettuce. It was no surprise when beets appeared on my plate that night. What was surprising was that they were delicious.

Fast-forward 25 years, to my first exploratory visit as co-author-to-be of a cookbook about  the Ranch’s new cooking school and culinary center, La Cocina que Canta.  The windswept patch that had been the nascent Tres Estrellas was now a lush landscape of 5 acres, planted with alternating rows of fruit trees, herbs and lettuce and vegetables. The stone-and-brick kitchen house was completely overrun with climbing roses and flowering vines. Bees thrummed by the thousands in head-high bushes of fragrant lavender and rosemary; birds chirped; hummingbirds hummed and butterflies fluttered, as butterflies will, from leaf  to flower. A worn wooden bench beckoned from the shade of a vast mulberry tree. In the open courtyard of La Cocina, a fountain trickled soothingly. Mustachioed gardeners wheeled barrows heaped with colorful mountains of peppers, lettuces, herbs, tomatoes , squash, beets, celery and leeks down the paths to be loaded up for a morning delivery to the Ranch, just over the hill. The transformation was complete. Whatever was imaginary a quarter-century ago had put down roots and flung itself into being with joyous abandon. It was Eden, every chef’s dream. Forget writing a book: I wanted to live here, and cook here,  forever.

I have cooked with pretty much everything from seaweed to truffles, foie gras to prime filet. Like most chefs, I just picked up the phone to get my vegetables and fruit delivered from…um, somewhere?  and relied on imported foods to dazzle my guests. Fresh raspberries on New Years Eve? Why not? Weren’t we lucky to have access to whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted it? As far as I am concerned, the short answer is no. All this faux bounty has made us poorer.

The experience of working with Jesus and Salvador on this book has transformed  me. It’s been a subtle shift from seeing food not just as product that comes out of a box, but as something that grew in a particular place in its appropriate season, tended by human beings. I can’t bring myself to pronounce ‘terroir’ properly (I sound like Barbara Walters) but I can surely taste the season in a ripe nectarine. Lettuce leaves are looked at  individually, to better admire their shapes and colors. I know why  supermarket carrots are bland, because over  the years it took to research and write the book,  I watched the gardeners dig, harrow, weed, compost, worry and fret over their carrots. It takes love and dedication to make a carrot taste that good. Once I was re-calibrated to what really good, fresh food tasted like, nothing else would do. I’m spoiled. Correction: I’m saved.

Things have changed.  I wash my face with yogurt, because it works. I make my own herb tisanes, but I still enjoy the occasional espresso, or glass of red wine. Chefs have appalling eating habits, but my cooking has changed. I prefer less oil and less salt and more beautiful fresh vegetables, fruit and herbs. (I still can’t imagine life without butter and chocolate, though.) Change was easy, a little at a time. I learned how to add a handful of veggies here and there to boost the value of what I cooked. I prefer to use whole grains instead of white stuff, and I make salads of roasted vegetables and herbs and snack on carrots and cranberries and almonds. I make lots of soups and exceptional organic bread to go with, and my children eat it. In fact, they often make it. The sight of my daughter, with pierced nose and Ipod in place, kneading bread by hand was one of those strange moments when I realized that the world was going to be okay after all, even if it looked different.

Really, it was easy. 

My food buying  is on a whole new level: no more flown-in, dead-tasting out of season food, or endangered fish. Now, I know farmers and herbalists as well as cooks and waiters. I feel connected and responsible for bigger things than just slapping a dramatic presentation on a plate.

In the end, it comes down to the choices we make, and the things we do because we really care about something- a result, a philosophy, a belief.  

I see how hard Salvador and his team work in the garden, and how passionate he is merely talking about what he grows, and why.  I watch Jesus, a natural teacher, lead his class gently back to their senses: touching, smelling, tasting, chopping, stirring and enjoying. We remember how truly wonderful the very simplest things in our lives can be, if approached with care and respect…and gratitude.  

A Chef and A Gardener

Jesus González, Creative Chef, La Cocina Que Canta

Creative Chef Jesus Gonzalez says with a smile that he learned to cook ‘at the school of Mom’. Sra. Gonzalez was (and still is) very particular about basic ingredients, insisting on the best and only the best. At her side, in the legendary markets of his native Mexico City, Jesus learned the same passionate focus on the quality of simple things.

Legendary Golden Door chef Michel Stroot was his next teacher. With the Door’s organic garden right outside the kitchen, Jesus absorbed classic French technique and a respect for natural flavors and presentations, turning out meals that were fresh, beautiful and healthy. Stroot came to trust him and let him experiment, learning in the process about building and balancing flavors, texture, color and taste – lessons he builds into everything he teaches.

Jesus cooks in the traditional styles of Mexico and Europe, often  without written recipes, relying instead on a knowledge of simple cooking techniques and his own tastes and instincts. These are the same skills that he strives to impart to his students at La Cocina Que Canta: choose the best ingredients, treat them with respect - and taste what you cook. Understanding flavor is so important that he conducts frequent impromptu ‘tastings’ of herbs, tomatoes and other treats from the garden, so that students can learn to taste the differences.

“A recipe is just the beginning of cooking,” Jesus explains. “Tasting is everything. Everything! My students learn to taste and adjust recipes as they cook, because ingredients can change.”

Menu inspiration comes straight from the garden. In addition to planning the garden on paper, Jesus makes a point of walking down the long rows of herbs and peppers, tomatoes and beans, ruffled little lettuces and curly greens, and lets his imagination run wild. “Sometimes I think wow, what am I going to do with all these vegetables?

“It might seem like a limitation, to work only from what we grow,” he says. “But it really is limitless. The garden in summer is incredible – it is the best thing --there is so much of everything that my imagination goes wild. For example, there are so many basils! Lemon and purple and cinnamon and Genoa basil, and the little basil. I look at what is growing and imagine new combinations of things. Then I go right back to the kitchen and come up with something completely new.”

Salvador Tinajero, Tres Estrellas Head Gardener

It’s easy to idealize what farmers and gardeners do. The truth is that the year is long, the work is hard and the results can be heartbreaking.  Gardeners are not so much artists themselves as the stubborn managers of that ultimate diva, la madre natural.  But  Nature, sometimes generous and sometimes savagely capricious, does not always cooperate.

Gardeners are different:  passionate about small details, enormously stoic, accepting defeat yet always moving forward into the next season, experimenting, knowing that their year’s work is at the whim of enormous forces far beyond their, or anyone’s control. Sometimes the earth gives beyond expectation. Sometimes a crop fails to thrive in spite of all his skills. The gardener takes all in stride and moves on to the next project,  hoping always  that what he sows will take root, that the weather will be kind, and after long months of hard work something wonderful will be ready for harvest.

Chefs want consistency and predictability from their gardens. And tiny baby vegetables, all the same size, delivered when the chef wants them. Tres Estrellas head gardener Salvador Tinajero always wants to grow new things in the garden – just to see what will happen.  A poet of plants, a friend to tomatoes, he can list ten kinds of carrots and a dozen or more of tomatoes and describe the finer qualities of each with precision and the enthusiasm of an aficionado.

Salvador firmly believes that plants have personalities: radicchio, for example, ‘likes lots of elbow room.’  Farm Manager Anita Boen calls Salvador ‘El rey del ajo  y chiles-’ the king of garlic and chiles. And he is, growing half a dozen kinds of pungent garlic, and many more kinds of lovely (and sometimes lethally hot) chiles, just to see how different seeds and species respond to the Tres Estrellas microclimate. If Jesus is an artist, Salvador is an explorer. He works not to conquer, but to mediate between chefs and nature, and perhaps, to discover something new and wonderful.

Sarah Livia Brightwood, Owner, Tres Estrellas

Sarah Livia Brightwood , the daughter of Deborah Szekely, is the owner, designer, and creative force behind Tres Estrellas, the organic farm that provides many of the fruits and vegetables to Rancho La Puerta.

She is the President of Rancho La Puerta. The landscape designs at Rancho La Puerta were overseen by her during the past 20 years.  Her formal training in landscape design took place at the University of Oregon.

Under Sarah’s leadership, Rancho La Puerta has launched many innovative programs in conservation, sustainable agriculture, low-water use landscapes, the use of native plants, and other “green” methods, to the point where the Ranch has long been considered the leader in destination spa “green” programs.
She guides Fundacion La Puerta as its president: Fundacion is a not-for-profit family foundation started by the Szekely family and former Ranch partner Jose Manuel Jasso. The foundation is dedicated to natural history education for Tecate school children and their teachers, and it supports a number of conservation and cultural programs that serve the people of Tecate and the cross-border region. Fundacion and Sarah Livia were instrumental in setting aside 2,000 of the Ranch’s 3,000 total acres as a nature preserve in perpetuity—a bold stroke that was key to the establishment of a large cross-border wildlife corridor in consort with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Mexico’s Pronatura, and other organizations.

Also a talented artist and writer, Sarah Livia brings her creative eye, passion for botany, and deep respect for the earth’s natural resources to everything she does.

Anita Boen, Tres Estrellas Farm Manager

Anita oversees the day to day operations of Tres Estrellas, which includes obtaining seeds and supplies for Salvador and wrangling a large (and occasionally defiant) flock of chickens. She is also the resident herbalist, harvesting vast swathes of useful herbs and flowers for drying and distilling essential oils. Anita maintains an old-fashioned stillroom at Casa de Remedios where she experiments with tisanes, potpourris, aromatic oils and skin treatments. She leads tours of the garden, where she introduces guests to useful herbs and flowers. Her knowledge of culinary and herbal plants is encyclopaedic; her chocolate banana bread, legendary.

How To Use This Book

Setting the Culinary Center and cooking school in the middle of the garden was a brilliant progression of the combined vision of founder Deborah Szekely and her daughter Sarah Livia Brightwood, owner of Tres Estrellas and patient designer of that miraculous 25-year transformation.

When the concept of the cooking school was discussed, Sarah Livia envisioned the school as an airy, sunlit space with huge windows facing the mountains and garden. The idea is that through  the cycle of harvest, preparation and cooking, students would re-connect with real food and discover the joy of the garden and of working with food. It works.

It’s always been Deborah’s mission to reawaken in her guests the pleasure of cooking and eating. To Deborah, food is more than just fuel. Food is a joy, and cooking is a pleasure. The right food is the key to a long healthy life and food is an important connection to others, and to the greater world. She sees her guests, many of whom are busy professionals, living on restaurant food and fast food, too busy and burned out to nurture and care for themselves with good, healthy food. She sees many people who claim to be ‘too busy’ to cook – too busy to give themselves the sensual pleasure, the joy, of touching, smelling, tasting, reacting, thinking, creating, nurturing- that the act of cooking and eating brings. Chefs know that cooking is good for the soul and body. It’s why we do it.

This book, lovely as it is, is a tool and meant to be used. The best cookbooks have splattered pages and sticky notes. So go on – cook something!

There’s no wrong way to cook. One of our main goals is to make you feel confident in your own kitchen and with your cooking skills. Try something simple at first, and don’t worry if it isn’t perfect. Cooking is always as improvisational as jazz. Use your recipe as a guideline, like a base melody, and go for it. Experiment. Change the recipe! Scribble notes in the margins. You’ll just get better and someday soon, like a chef, you won’t really need a recipe book at all.

The La Cocina way of cooking is not about restriction and denial, but about packing more delicious ‘good stuff’ into your daily cooking. So pile it on! Add healthy vegetables, fruit, whole grains and legumes into your diet by making simple changes in how (and where) you shop, what you choose and how you cook it. This is cooking that is soul-satisfying and as a bonus, good for you.

How and where you shop is important. Locate and patronize your local farmers’ markets. Shop often and buy smaller amounts, so your food is fresher and tastier. Visiting farmers markets will also attune you to the seasonal products of your area, as will the seasonal menus that follow, which are based on planting lists for Tres Estrellas. If a recipe ingredient is out of season or otherwise unavailable, simply substitute something that is in season.

In some recipes, the lists of ingredients might seem long at first. Yes, there might seem to be much cutting and chopping. But most of those ingredients are the delicious vegetables you want to eat, and the preparation is quick and simple. Give it a try!

We’ve provided you with two tables of contents. The first is seasonally inspired menus, because food in its natural season tastes better and is better for you. However, most recipes are readily adaptable to any season. The second lists every recipe by category: soups, salads, and so on, so it’s easy to locate your favorites and simple to find inspiration.

Basics (starting on page 000) is your go-to reference, a descriptive and practical guide to buying and cooking whole grains, legumes, and fruits and vegetable, as well as great ideas for incorporating healthy ingredients and techniques into your everyday  cooking.  Need to know how to cook kohlrabi or quinoa? Check Basics. If you buy something weird at the farmers market, or if you just want simple ideas about how to cook something you have on hand, Basics will be your indispensable guide to the foundations of healthy cooking.

When you look past the recipes, you will see that this book is really about remembering how to taste. Awakening your senses will revolutionize how you look at food, how you shop  and how you cook. It’s a reminder to slow down, and enjoy one of life’s great pleasures. And it’s a plea to wake up and save real food before its too late.


The founders, teachers and assistants of La Cocina que Canta wish for our students and visitors:
To Experience the connection of Earth to table , and cooking to health
To Cook with confidence and joy
To Use healthful cooking techniques
To Create delicious food by building and balancing flavors
To Appreciate the history and tradition of food and growing
To Support sustainable, organic and local farming

How To Use This Book: Recipe Notes

  • On portion control, Deborah reminds us that how much you eat depends on the size of the container and age of the container. (The container being you.) Recipes make 6 small or ‘spa’ portions (for small people) or 4 regular size portions (for larger and/or hungrier people).
  • All recipes may be halved, unless otherwise noted, to serve 2-3 people.
  • Organic ingredients are essential! This is one point on which Deborah is adamant. Remember that the slight premium you might pay  helps support a small grower and keeps choices available to you.
  • Buy foods in season. If you can’t find an ingredient listed in a recipe, any similar seasonal fruit or vegetable may be substituted.
  • Shop regularly at your local whole foods co-op and your farmer’s market. By supporting local growers and distributors, you vote with your dollars for better, healthier food.
  • Tofu or tempeh may be substituted for any fish or cheese in the recipes
  • Soy milk may be substituted for dairy.
  • Low-fat or non-fat dairy products may be used in place of regular (full fat) dairy products such as milk or cheese. This may change the taste and texture of the finished recipe. 
  • If you are watching your sodium intake, salt may be eliminated completely from any recipe. Conversely, feel free to adjust the seasoning in any recipe to your taste.
  • Fresh herbs add a burst of freshness and incredible flavor that elevates even a simple recipe to something wonderful. So, we cannot in good conscience recommend dried herbs as a substitute and urge you to buy and use fresh herbs, which are widely available all year. For the record, 1 teaspoon whole dried herb is usually the equivalent of 1 tablespoon fresh.
  • We recommend that you choose organic ‘real’ foods, such as butter, over processed ‘pretend’ foods, such as margarine or other spreads.
  • Whole wheat flour and whole wheat pastry flour may be substituted for unbleached flour. We do not recommend substituting other types of flour, since the gluten content will vary and the recipe may not have a happy outcome. But, if you want to, go for it.
  • Our seasons at the ranch may not be the same as yours. The listings in each chapter of seasonal fruits and vegetables are approximations. Some climate zones get corn in late June, others must wait until August. Your local farmers markets will be on their own schedule.



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