Cookbook review: Rancho la Puerta

December 29, 2010 at 1:07 pm (Cookbook reviews, To try)

I’ve had the Rancho la Puerta cookbook by Bill Wavrin for many years.   It’s a really lovely cookbook, with a nice small size, a well-constructed but easy-to-open binding, and a lovely layout.  The font and formatting are nice, there head notes are reasonably detailed, and the paper is littered with pretty gold suns that make you think of Mexico and spas.  I really like the ideas underlying this cookbook–fun, light, Mexican- and Asian-inspired dishes.  Unfortunately, for me, the recipes consistently generally didn’t work for me.  They looked good on the page, and often had a good idea buried in them, but they almost never turned out to be recipes I wanted to make again.  My assessment is echoed in quite a few of the (admittedly sparse) Amazon reviews.  A number of reviewers complain that the recipes are consistently bland and suffer from textural problems. 

Over the years I’ve actually tried quite a few of the recipes in the cookbook, but most of them I never bothered to blog about.  Here are some of my notes:

  1. Tortilla soup:  given that Rancho la Puerta is a spa in Mexico, I was very disappointed in this soup.  It looked nice, but the taste was quite boring.  It just didn’t have any distinctive flavors. Peter Berley’s non-traditional miso tortilla soup is much, much better.
  2. Lentil and sun-dried tomato salad.   Derek liked this salad okay but it was way too vinegary for me (1/4 cup red wine vinegar and 1 tsp. olive oil).  I did think it was interesting that Wavrin seasoned his lentils with cardamom–an interesting combination that I might use in the future. But still I wouldn’t make this recipe again.
  3. Grilled vegetable salad with red pepper vinaigrette: the vinaigrette wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t quite right on the salad–too strong, also a little too sweet.
  4. Last supper salad: this yogurt and spiced apple salad was bland as written, but after upping the amounts of many of the ingredients, I quite liked it.  It’s a great recipe to make in the fall when the first cider arrives.
  5. Roasted red pepper and corn sauce:  I made this three times.  The first time it was very tasty, but the 2nd time I didn’t like it as much.  It tasted a bit watery and not very peppery.  The third time I also wasn’t that impressed.  (The recipe:  Saute 1/4 tsp. olive oil in a saucepan with 2 shallots chopped and 1 garlic clove minced, add 1 cup – 2 Tbs. corn kernels, 1/2 cup white wine, and simmer for 10 minutes.  Blend with 2 peeled, roasted red bell pepers, 1.5 tsp. fresh oregano, salt and pepper.)
  6. Carrot-ginger salad with pineapple:  This recipe sounded great, but I found it a little bland, not quite sweet or tart enough, Also the pepper flakes were a bit strange.  I did like the combination of the sesame flavors with radicchio.
  7. Mushroom potato burgers are supposed to be made with mashed potatoes, but I used a mix of potatoes and celery root (with fat added).  Wavrin has you dip the burgers in crushed coriander seeds then pan-fried/grilled.  I liked the interesting, highly flavored, crispy crust that the seeds add to the burgers, but the burgers themselves weren’t quite right.
  8. Roasted vegetable tamale pie:  this recipe worked, but the texture was rubbery and the flavor quite bland.  I wouldn’t make it again.
  9. Beets with ginger and lime:  I thought the salad was acidic enough so I left out the rice vinegar and didn’t cook the beets with onions, but Derek said it was yummy.  Perhaps it could have used a bit more ginger though.  The recipe:  4 medium beets (3/4 pound), 1 medium onion coarsely chopped, 2 Tbs. rice vinegar, 2 Tbs. lime juice, 2 tsp. minced fresh ginger, 1 tsp. minced fresh oregano or 1/4 tsp. dried, fresh ground pepper.  boil beets and onion for 25 minutes until beets for-tender.  remove skins.  cut beets into 1/4 inch slices and add to a bowl with other ingredients.  serve warm or chilled.
  10. Cauliflower w/mustard vinaigrette:  The vinaigrette contained ginger, balsamic, dijon, soy sauce, ginger, and lime juice, a combo that sounded great.  Unfortunately, the dish was quite bland.  I couldn’t taste the ginger at all.    Also, the recipe says to boil cauliflower florets for 25 minutes until fork tender.  I think it took my cauliflower only about 5 minutes until it was tender crisp!
  11. Bok choy, fennel, and leek:  this recipe’s instructions were pretty imprecise, and the amount of seasoning was puny.  After upping all the seasonings it tasted okay, but I found the shapes of the vegetables to be unwieldy, and a little unappetizing looking.
  12. White beans with aromatic herbs.  The beans in this recipe are cooked with what I think of as Thankgiving herbs:  sage, thyme, rosemary….  This dish was actually quite tasty and satisfying, although the beans needed more salt.  I cooked the beans in a long lasagna pan so everything got nice and caramelized.
  13. Chile pasta with arugula and coriander seeds.  I made this recipe, but added more olive oil and parmesan.  I liked it.  The garlic and chile peppers and coriander gave it some heat and a bit of exotic flavor.  The arugula added a lovely fresh green color.   I’d make some changes next time though. Original recipe:  1 chile de arbol, 2 Tbs. coriander seeds, 1 pound pasta, 2 tsp. oil, 3 garlic cloves thinly sliced, 6 cups chopped arugula leaves, 1/4 cup grated Parmesan.  Toast the chile for 3-5 minutes.  Chop.  Put the coriander seeds in the pan and cook for 2-3 minutes.  Crush with a mortar.  Add oil to pan and cook the chopped chile, coriander seeds, garlic, and arugula for 1-2 minutes.  Add the cooked pasta and cheese. … I used 2 chiles, 1 Tbs. coriander seeds, 6 ounces pasta, 1 Tbs. oil, 3 large cloves garlic, 3 ounces arugula, 1.75 ounces parmesan.
  14. Baked mexican bananas with cinnamon.  These bananas weren’t bad with ice cream.  Recipe:  3 bananas, quartered horizontally, 1/2 tsp. orange zest, 1/4 tsp. lime zest, 1/2 cup orange juice, 1 tsp. lime juice, 1/4 cup raisins, 1/4 tsp. vanilla, 1/4 tsp. cinnamon.  Pour sauce over bananas in shallow dish, bake at 375 for 20 minutes or until lightly browned and bubbling.
  15. Nonfat chocolate sauce.  I thought this chocolate sauce actually got quite nice and creamy. It becomes very solid when it cools.  Recipe:  1/2 cup skim milk,  1 Tbs. strongly brewed coffee, 1/2 tsp. cornstarch, 1/4 cup cocoa powder, 1/4 cup brown sugar.  Combine milk, coffee, and cornstarch and stir until cornstarch dissolves.  Stir in the cocoa and brown sugar and bring to a simmer over medium heat.  Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring until the sauce thickens and is no longer cloudy.  Set aside to cool.  Use when cool or cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days.
  16. Bran-raisin muffins:  These were a disaster for me, way too liquid-y. (Although I did sub wheat bran for the 1/4 cup oat bran and use 3 jumbo egg whites instead of 4 large.  Still, I don’t think those subs should have led to such a disaster.)
  17. A cookie recipe that uses banana.  The texture of the cookies was soft and fluffy–not at all like a cookie.  I really disliked them.

One other recipe that sounded interesting but I never got a chance to try:

  • Pasta with shiitake mushrooms, moroccan lemons, and basil. I would have tried it but Derek doesn’t like shiitake mushrooms.Moroccan style preserved lemons are normally preserved using olive oil, but the cookbook’s recipe calls for just 6 lemons, 1/4 cup kosher salt, and 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice.

I’ve passed the cookbook on.  Hopefully someone else will find it more useful than I did!

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