Friday, May 23, 2008

A Day in a Singing Kitchen: La Cocina Que Canta

This month has been a whirlwind, what with a business trip and subsequent tsunami of work that has kept me out of the markets and off the blog for the most part. But, life is calming down and in that spirit I want to take a little side trip from market life to a sweet adventure I had before the madness began—a Saturday at Rancho La Puerta to play in their new cooking school, La Cocina Que Canta.

If you haven’t had a chance to visit the Rancho La Puerta fitness resort, which is just south of the border in Tecate, it’s something you ought to try. And if one of the reasons you haven’t gone is that the typical stay is a week—and at some expense—then the new program they’re launching is the perfect introduction, especially if you love cooking classes (a passion of mine).

What the Ranch is offering is a day trip on Saturdays that begins first thing in the morning at the Old Town Trolley Station. An air-conditioned coach provides transportation down to the Ranch and back. Once you arrive—it takes just over an hour—you’re shown to lockers where you can stash your stuff for the day, which could include a swimsuit, workout clothes, a tennis racket, hiking boots—whatever fits in with the kind of day you want to have. That’s because you can spend the morning before lunch and an hour or so after poolside (my choice), in a fitness class, on a hike though the colorful wild meadows, or indulging in a massage (my other choice) or other treatment like a mani/pedi or facial.

For me, the real fun began in the afternoon when a group of us were driven from the main quarters of the Ranch to La Cocina and the adjoining organic farm. The day was warm but not sizzling as we passed under an arbor thick with pink climbing roses to the sunny patio and then inside the hacienda-style building.

There, a serene tile courtyard led into the airy dining room and a charmingly rustic but amazingly equipped kitchen any cook would lust after.

On the enormous butcher-block-topped island with the requisite cooking school mirrors carefully angled above were what appeared to be several stations with different set ups containing bowls of produce, oils, spices, cutting boards, knives and individual recipes.

Chef and teacher Jesús González, dressed in elegant black, was waiting for us and after a brief welcome introduced us to the head gardener, Salvador. First things first. We were going to pick the vegetables that would go into our meal.

Salvador is a guy who is obviously adores his work and the six-acre organic farm reflects his devotion. In late April some vegetables and herbs were just starting to reach for the sun. The shady mulberry tree en route to the garden was thick with sweet long purplish berries that we briefly stopped to pick and nibble on.

Tomato and pepper seedlings were maturing in the nearby hothouse for later planting, but we made our way past row after neat row of multicolored Swiss chard, fennel, sorrel and mizuna to our destination where the tops of garlic, carrots and onions hid the bounty in the soil below.

Pulling out a small knife, Salvador quickly sliced up a pinkish white head of garlic he had just picked and gave us samples to taste.

It was still warm from the earth, gently fragrant and sweetly nutty. He showed us how to pick several heads and collected them in a woven basket, then led us to the carrots and finally the onions.

The pile in the basket was swelling and beautiful, but he topped it off with some heads of lettuce before shepherding us first through the greenhouse, which we wanted to see, and then back to the kitchen to begin the class.

First we reviewed the menu with Chef Jesús. To start would be “Tacos Delicias,” homemade corn tortillas featuring a hint of fresh jalapeño and spring onion and Three Sisters Mole. The next course was Filo Cups with Gravlax and Spring Onion Ice Cream. Then came a roasted carrot soup with fresh ginger and coconut milk, followed by Fennel Sorrel Salad. The main course was grilled red snapper with peanut butter chipotle sauce, spring vegetable ragout and black quinoa and cranberry salad. And, we had Asparagus Roulades with Fire-Roasted Tomatoes. For dessert was Orange Chocolate Mousse with almond cookies.

Chef Jesús explained the philosophy of the food we were going to be preparing, which was in tandem with the cuisine served at the Ranch—an emphasis on organically grown ingredients, rich in flavor but healthfully prepared in a Mexican Mediterranean style. Instead of sugar, there’s agave syrup. Instead of cream for the chocolate mousse, we would use low-fat cream cheese and cooked carrots. A typically salt-laden gravlax had a mere three tablespoons of salt and relied more heavily on spices like fennel seeds, green cardamom and black pepper corns along with green garlic, brandy, agave syrup and fresh chervil to infuse the salmon with flavor.

Then, he gave us a brief knife skills course along with some additional advice on technique—like peeling ginger with the edge of a spoon instead of a knife and how to make fresh corn tortillas with a press.

With this introduction completed, we were divided into teams of two, picked a recipe and got to work. The chef supervised and was there to help and advise and coach us on, but he was also assisted by the most wonderful staff. About half a dozen young chefs circulated and helped us with whatever we needed—figuring out the recipe, making sure we got access to a burner if we had something to sauté or an oven if we had veggies to roast. They hovered but didn’t interfere, demonstrated but didn’t dominate. So, we learned how to make tortillas, scale a salmon, slice carrots and evenly chop onions. In short, we (including some people who had never cooked before) prepared a fine meal and had a blast doing it.

By the end of the class, we had filled a long table with a stunning array of dishes, at which point we sat down, four to a table to enjoy our meal, accompanied by wine from the nearby Valle de Guadalupe. I think my favorite dish was the vibrant Black Quinoa and Cranberry Salad—so many flavors and textures. And so beautiful. And, prepared by two women who were astounded at what they had accomplished. Neither were cooks.

Black Quinoa and Cranberry Salad

Hands - On Cooking Class, with Creative Chef Jesús González

Serves 6

½ cup red quinoa

1 ½ cups water

¼ cup dried cranberries

¼ cup toasted pine nuts

½ cup fresh mango, diced

¼ cup fresh chives

1 spring onion, chopped

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

3 tablespoons peppermint, chopped

¼ teaspoon allspice

¼ teaspoon salt

fresh ground pepper to taste

3 cups fresh salad greens

1. Bring the water to a boil and cook the quinoa for 15 minutes. Drain and put the quinoa in a medium bowl.

2. Add the cranberries, pine nuts, mango, chives and onion.

3. In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, peppermint, allspice and salt and pepper.

4. Serve the salad on a bed of fresh greens.

Tired, full, but happy, we got to unwind before leaving by being serenaded by one of the staff, who shyly sat down with his guitar on a chair in front of the kitchen island and sang beautiful Spanish songs.

By now it was dark and time to get back to our bus and cross the border. The trip home, including the border crossing, was uneventful. We were back at the Old Town Trolley Station just before 9 p.m. and tumbled into our own cars to go home.

For those who love cooking classes, this is a real winner. Demonstration classes are fine—and the Ranch certainly offers those with Chef Jesús and a multitude of visiting guest chefs during the week. But if you have the opportunity to do a hands-on course, take it. There’s no better way to actually learn how to make a dish than doing it—with the help of experienced hands who can translate what’s on the page into viable technique. Plus, the day itself is a tranquil, delightful experience sans cell phones, computers and other daily distractions.

Saturdays at the Ranch costs $175. Transportation, lunch, dinner, classes and use of the facilities is included. Spa services are additional. For more information, go to www.rancholapuerta.com/saturdays.


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