I went to a buffet at a friends’ right after she returned from her first visit to Rancho La Puerta spa, right over the border from San Diego in Tecate, Baja, Mexico. She served quesadillas, a recipe she brought back. They were outstanding and I got a new appreciation for the casual Mexican tortilla sandwich.
The spa is pretty much a legend here in California, along with its more luxurious sister spa, The Golden Door. The spas created a revolutionary movement for health-conscious eating. It was delicious enough to be called “cuisine”–spa cuisine–which is like as familar as French food these days. There is no fitness resort that predates Rancho La Puerta, as well as the practice of decalorization, or cutting the fat out, of favorite foods served at the spa.
Edmond Szekely was a proponent of the alternative natural-living experiments of the 1930s and a philosopher of comparative religions. Baja had all the elements for his lifestyle of a working camp where guests worked in the garden along with hydrotherapy and morning hikes up mystic Mount Kuchumaa. He gave lectures on ancient religions and his wife gave the exercise classes, and later the new-to-America Hatha Yoga, which were very popular.
Elements of the spa reflect his research into the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, a minor religion today you don’t hear about much. The religion states that active participation in life through good thoughts, good words, and good deeds is necessary to ensure happiness. This active participation is a central element in Zoroaster’s philosophical vision of free will and a peaceful practical life–the basis of the spa philosophy, then called The Essene School of Life, after the world’s greatest natural healers and agriculturalists. One of the oldest nutrition-rich recipes still served at the Ranch of the Door is their 100 percent whole wheat bread called Zarathustra Bread. I have a bread machine version of the bread in The Bread Lover’s Bread Machine Cookbook called Tecate Whole Wheat Bread.
The founder’s wife, Deborah Szeckey, now in her 80s, still oversees the daily running of the spa, along with their son and daughter. The spa was once a destination hideout for Hollywood royalty to detox and recharge (check out the old photos on Facebook with one of Burt Lancaster baking bread in the outdoor adobe oven.) Now it is a destination for anyone in search of new age style health and well being.
Ranch La Puerta is known for serving their organic vegetarian food prepared from their own gardens, orchard, and vineyard that are an impressive 6 acres. The kitchen garden was one of the first features of the spa when it opened–food grown to service the restaurant, way before the now pretty familiar restaurant gardening craze.
The organic garden is also the site of Rancho La Puerta’s cooking school, which opened in August 2007, managed by my friend food pro Antonia Allegra. Called La Cocina Que Canta (The Kitchen That Sings), the 4,500-square-foot center has a classroom-kitchen that overlooks patios graced with stone fountains and wisteria blossoms. Culinary nirvana. The Culinary Center’s consulting chef is Michel Stroot, who has retired from his career as head chef at the Golden Door sister spa, and author of numerous spa cookbook. Jesus González is the executive chef for the spa and has worked with Stroot for 14 years.
After lots of exercise, massage, yoga, and spa treatments, there is a joyous focus on the food. My friend commented on eating while she was there: “I forgot how little food 1,2000 calories a day really is!” Nonetheless, there is an astonishing amount of variety at each meal—all vegetarian low calorie of course–freshly made granola, healthy muffins, hot oatmeal, guacamole of course, an extraordinary salad bar, hearty vegetarian enchiladas, satisfyingly rich vegetable soups, and delicate flans.
My friend served these quesadillas she had eaten while at the spa, cut into quarters, on a small platter. They looked so humble and the filling is so basic, so who could have known how tasty–the high flavor element called Mexican-Mediterranean cuisine at the Ranch. She had brought the recipe back (there are photocopies of the most requested recipes available, as well as 3 yummy vegetarian cookbooks that have grown in sophistication) and I got her to recite the directions after I couldn’t stop eating them. Good thing I did, for not long ago I reminded her about the recipe and she had never written down the proportions and hence, forgot all about them.
Well, here they are for everyone. The famous spa quesadillas. I have never seen this recipe printed anywhere (but the spa makes variations on this) and, of course, the proportions can be modified to your taste. You can use sliced rich whole milk mozzarella if you don’t want to use the part-skim like they do at the cocina. Zucchini is available year round and definitely get nice fresh whole wheat tortillas.
Makes 4 servings, 2 quesadillas per person
- 5 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 medium white onion, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, pressed
- 3 medium zucchini, diced
- 1 plum tomato, seeded and diced
- 1 1/2 teaspoons reduced-sodium soy sauce or tamari
- 1 teaspoon dried crumbled oregano
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 12-ounces firm tofu, drained and diced
- 2 cups (8-ounces) shredded or thin sliced mozzarella cheese
- 8 fresh whole wheat tortillas
Preheat the oven to 400º. Line a large baking sheet with foil.
In a 12-inch skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook until soft, 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 30 seconds. Add the zucchini, tomato, soy sauce, herb, and few grinds of pepper. Cook 5 minutes to soften and brown slightly, stirring a few times. Add the tofu; gently stir to combine and warm. Remove pan from the heat.
Lay out the tortillas on the work surface and divide the filling equally between them, spreading in an even layer on the lower half of the tortilla. Sprinkle the cheese on top of the vegetable-tofu mixture and fold over to make a half-moon shape. Place on the baking sheet.
Place the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a small bowl and lightly brush both sides of the quesadillas with it. Place in the oven and bake until hot, crisped, and cheese is melted, about 8 minutes.
Serve immediately, 2 quesadilla half moons for each persons, and cut into halves or thirds, if desired.
Excerpted from Not Your Mother’s Weeknight Cooking, by Beth Hensperger. (c) 2008, used by permission from the Harvard Common Press.
Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2015
Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.