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FOOD : Garden Delights From a Legendary Spa : At Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Meals Are Organically Grown : and Imaginatively Prepared

December 13, 1987|IRENE BORGER | Irene Borget is a Los Angeles writer.

IN 1940,TRANSYLVANIA nobleman Edmond Bordeaux Szekely and his young bride, Deborah, opened a health resort, Rancho La Puerta, in Tecate, Mexico. Guests hiked, worked in the organic garden, ate fresh fruits, vegetables and whole-grain bread and paid $17.50 per week.

Hiking in the clear mountain air at the ranch is now one of the scores of activities that range from Absolutely Abdominals to Water Volleyball. Guests no longer work in the garden (they're too busy getting facials, massages and herbal wraps), but once again much of the produce comes right off the land. Ranch visitors are still served copious vegetarian meals (with fish on the menu twice a week), while the cost of a week's stay now tops the $1,000 mark.

Two years ago, after completing an extensive building program that replaced rather rustic living accommodations with folk-art-decorated villas, the two Szekely children, Alex and Livia, decided to revive the organic gardening that had been discontinued many years before. They brought a young horticulturist, Jonathan Frei, down to Mexico to start Rancho Tres Estrellas garden on the rocky, chaparral-laden high desert.

The garden, now three cultivated acres, is a Technicolor dream--as if Kansas had become Oz. Filled with everything from 10 kinds of greens (including arugula, radicchio , several kinds of endives and escaroles, and mache ) to 120 varieties of flowers, white eggplant, and purple beans with yellow stripes, the garden also yields cornucopian loads of jewel-toned fruit.

The colors of the tomatoes alone would fill an impressionist's palette: Big yellow tomatoes are called "Lemon Boy" and "Taxi." The tiny saffron ones are known as "Yellow Marbles"; a flame-colored breed is "Golden Jubilee."

"I like diversification: herbs, vegetables, tree crops, perennials," Frei says. "It's boring to work with just one or two things. And why, if you're really interested in agriculture and living things, would you want to surround yourself with pesticides? Our system at Tres Estrellas works with the naturally occurring elements in nature, with compost. There are over 5 billion microbes in a handful of soil."

Now 32, Frei, son of a Yale professor of religion, studied agriculture in college before apprenticing himself to a number of farmers and nurserymen throughout the United States. Moving to California to work at the Frey winery in Mendocino, one of the two organic vineyards in the state (marrying into the family with the coincidental sound-alike name), Frei learned of the job at Rancho la Puerta "through the alternative-agriculture grapevine."

Six months after he began planning the garden, another Young Turk, the new executive chef and director of food and beverages, Joe D. Cochran Jr., arrived. The two men worked together to revitalize the ranch's kitchen from the ground up.

Cochran, who has worked in restaurants since he was 14 years old, developed Alternative Cuisine, the spa-food menu for the Four Seasons Hotel chain, becoming, at 27, its youngest full-fledged chef. Now 32, and having been at Rancho La Puerta since early 1986, he's in harvest heaven 12 months of the year.

"I will never have the opportunity to cook with these kinds of products again. The tomatoes, the garlic, even things like cilantro, are the best I've ever seen. Jonathan's planted every herb known to man--and then some. I'd never seen one variety of basil-- piccolocino --with tiny little leaves before. I'm using vegetables and herbs I'd never even heard about--like romanesco, a cross between cauliflower and broccoli--so I've been doing research and creating new recipes."

Breakfast and lunch at the Ranch are served buffet style and guests can help themselves to seconds. And thirds. (Dinner, served by waiters, is expandable too.) But calories are posted, and for those who are interested in following it, the standard plan comes out to 1,000 calories per day. (Extra-calorie items like Persian Pancakes and Whole-Wheat Pizza have asterisks next to their names.)

To keep the calories down--and the cuisine healthy--Cochran uses neither fat nor salt. This classically trained chef relies on alternative cooking methods, such as "sauteing with vegetable stock" (he prepares two 40-gallon pots of fresh stock each day). Reduced fruit juices (apples, pears, bananas, pineapple) replace sugar in desserts. Frozen fruit, put through a juicer, substitutes for ice cream. Fresh herbs with pureed cucumbers are one salad-dressing trick. Dark-purple grapes and mint are two of Cochran's flavored vinegars. With textures and look important, too, Cochran serves tiny tomatillos in their jackets and grinds blue corn for his muffins, offering them with yogurt-swirled fresh-fruit purees.

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