Organic Cooking School

Last week I was in Mexico teaching La Cocina que Canta at Rancho la Puerta. At every turn there are sights, smells, and sounds that fill the senses. Such amazing beauty — and as incredible as those fields of flowers are, the gardens that really fill my soul are the organic vegetable and fruit gardens. Tres Estrellas is the 6 acre organic garden that provides much of the produce in the main kitchen and nearly all of the produce used by the cooking school.

Executive Chef Denise Roa works closely with the energetic and gregarious Head Gardener Salvadore with planting and harvesting the fruits and vegetables in the garden. She’s developed a very tight system in that 2-3 weeks before the chefs arrive she knows what will be ready for harvest. The visiting cooking teachers and chefs can then plan their menus accordingly. Frankly, I know of no other program like it, certainly in North America. It’s amazing for the cooking teachers, and most definitely, for the guests. It’s incredibly enlightening to be in an organic garden and see real food, to learn how to cook real food, and to push your body in physical exercise.

Really Losing It

Last year after teaching at Rancho la Puerta, I wrote a rather controversial post about the F word. Well, face it. Many people visit spas to lose weight. Regardless, a lot of people were quite surprised at my self-deprecating remarks. I have had issues with my weight my whole, entire life. I admitted in that post that I had truly never felt beautiful.

Mama was very upset with my post, mad that I said I wasn’t pretty, then she said she shouldn’t have fed me so much when I was a little girl. Lordy Mercy. It wasn’t her fault. We didn’t eat junk food growing up and she cooked homemade, wholesome food. My dad’s side of the family are large and stocky. There’s a lot about our bodies that boils down to genetics.

Y’all, some folks look like Charlize Theron and most folks don’t.

I wince when I hear women see a superthin waif-like supermodel and vocalize “I wish I looked like that!” Looking back at photos of when I was younger and thought I was fat, I actually wasn’t. A good deal of it was in my mind. But, even with my weight issues I’ve never, ever wanted to be super thin. I want to be strong. I guess if I could look like anyone other than myself, it would be a swimmer or a volleyball player, but never, ever a stick figure. The deal is no matter how much weight I lose, the likelihood of me growing another 3 inches is slim to none.

Last year’s piece was also about making changes, eating more healthfully. And, I did. The next months were filled with fresh produce and exercise. I was on track and things were going great. Then, I had a serious detour with my fall book tour. It completely messed me up. January came around and I was miserable, absolutely miserable. And, very overweight.

I had a major realization and I joined Weight Watchers. I knew I couldn’t continue on that path without serious consequences. I had to lose weight and I needed help. Coincidentally, one week after I joined the program Paula Deen announced she had diabetes. (I am not making that up.) I was quoted in various publications, including the New York Times. My iPhone was buzzing and dinging like a slot machine that entire week with various media outlets wanting quotes.

One of the things I said in the interviews is that Southern food doesn’t have to be unhealthy and that what is portrayed in the media isn’t always real Southern food. Yes, we occasionally ate Fried Chicken and Biscuits when I was young, but I sure as heck didn’t grow up with Bacon Wrapped Deep Fried Macaroni and Cheese.

How can I be taken seriously with my sermon because of my weight? Well, I am working on it.

Since January, I’m happy to say that I’ve lost 25 pounds and I’m working to lose even more. I feel absolutely great. I feel strong. (No, sadly I haven’t grown those 3 lost inches in stature and those Charlize Theron looks just aren’t happening this lifetime.)

It’s slow going, but it’s working and it’s real.

Real Food

It’s all about eating real food. The vegetables at Rancho la Puerta are alive! The gentle, persistent hum of the bees in the herbs is the soundtrack of the garden. The garlic is sticky and fiercely hot; the carrots are crisp and sweet like candy. One row goes to seed as the adjacent row has fledgling seedlings push through the soil. It’s vibrant and moving and pulsing with life. The food is as real and nourishing as it can possibly be. It’s powerful. It’s strong. The entire experience makes you think.

This past week at Rancho la Puerta I felt like I really embraced the philosophies of the ranch. I enjoyed the food and experience as I had never before. I did Monster Cardio Blast and Circuit Training. I laughed when the massage therapist said my calves were like massaging rocks. I taught Southern Comfort Spa Style and French Cuisine, and I felt honest in my skin. It felt really, really good.

Below are some of the recipes from the my classes as well as the famous Ranch Guacamole that I thought you might like as healthy summer sides.

Lighten Up, Y’all!

Fennel and Carrot Slaw
Serves 4 to 6

1 tablespoon mayonnaise or reduced fat mayonnaise
2 tablespoons low fat Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
Zest of 1/2 lemon
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons fresh dill or fennel fronds, chopped
1 teaspoon sugar, honey, or agave, or to taste
1 pound fresh fennel bulbs, cored, trimmed, and thinly sliced in julienne
½ pound carrots, sliced in julienne
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Using a large bowl whisk together the mayonnaise, yogurt, vinegar, lemon juice, lemon zest, dill, and sugar. Season with salt and pepper. Add the thinly sliced fennel and carrots; toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and chill up to 1 hour. Taste and adjust for seasoning and toss again before serving.

Roasted Beet Salad with Walnuts and Walnut Oil
Serves 4 to 6

4 medium fresh beets
1/4 cup walnuts, for garnish
1 shallot, very finely chopped
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons sherry or walnut vinegar
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon walnut oil
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 to 8 ounces mâche or tender young greens
4 to 6 ounces fresh goat cheese

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Wrap the beets individually in aluminum foil and bake them directly on the oven rack until completely tender, 1 to 11/2 hours. Remove from the oven. When cool enough to handle, slip off the skins and slice the beets 1/4 inch thick. Set aside.

While the beets are roasting, toast the walnuts on a baking sheet in the same oven until brown, about 10 minutes. Let the nuts cool slightly, coarsely chop them, and transfer to a small bowl; set aside.

To prepare the dressing, whisk together the shallot, mustard, and vinegar in a small bowl. Add the olive and walnut oils in a slow stream, whisking constantly, until creamy and emulsified; season with salt and pepper.

Just before serving, toss the beets in a little of the dressing to coat. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. In a separate bowl, toss the mâche with just enough dressing to coat. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

To serve, divide the greens and beets among the serving plates. Top with a spoonful of goat cheese and a sprinkling of toasted walnuts. Serve immediately.

Rancho la Puerta Guacamole
Makes about 2 cups

1 cup frozen peas, slightly thawed
1 medium Hass avocado, peeled and pitted
Juice of 1 lime
1 medium tomato, seeded and cut into ¼-inch dice
1/2 sweet onion, finely chopped
1 jalapeño, cored, seeded, and chopped
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1 small clove garlic, mashed into a paste
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment, process the peas until smooth. Add the avocado, lime juice, tomato, onion, jalapeño, cilantro, and garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Pulse until well-blended, but still slightly chunky.

Recipe adapted from Cooking with the Seasons at Rancho La Puerta by Jesús González, Deborah Schneider, and Deborah Szekely.

Full disclosure: I teach at Rancho la Puerta in exchange for lodging for myself and one guest for the week. In addition, I receive 3 credits for use at the spa. However, this post is not part a prerequisite of our barter agreement and I am not additionally compensated for this post or any social media efforts publicizing this post.

All photos by Virginia Willis

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