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COOKBOOK REVIEW

Ritzy spa recipes pare the fat, but not the flavor

A stir-fry of scallops, dried tomatoes, and baby bok choy. A stir-fry of scallops, dried tomatoes, and baby bok choy.
By T. Susan Chang
Globe Correspondent / January 14, 2009

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It's that penitent time of year. With the last of the holiday cookies gone, the ham and beef roasts reduced to a simmering soup, and the other indulgences a distant memory, you're probably thinking that a plate of plain lettuce doesn't sound so bad.

If you like your austerity lightly gilded, you might be heading to a luxury spa like Rancho La Puerta in Baja California, Mexico, where the lettuce leaves go upscale and so do the whole grains, the vegetables, and a few lucky fish. Or, like most of us, you might not be. In which case, there's "Cooking With the Seasons at Rancho La Puerta," which offers an opportunity to sample the fare without the travel.

There's good news: You can eat well while you're slimming. Creamy lima bean soup defies my preconceptions about dried-bean soups: Pureed limas lend their lightly nutty substance to the broth, while grassy tarragon, tart yogurt, and sauteed garlic and scallions lift the flavors far beyond your typical beany monotony, so you can almost forget how good it is for you.

Another favorite Rancho flavor-booster is lemon aioli, which begins with commercial mayonnaise. It's essential for the glazed salmon en croute, a coulibiac with phyllo instead of brioche. I was just starting to think it was a lot of trouble for not much return when a dollop of aioli brought the whole thing to life. It has much the same effect on Mediterranean saffron stew, a virtuous vegetable melange that's surprisingly tasty and generously endowed with zucchini.

Mushroom quiche with goat cheese presented one disaster: a quiche crust calling for a bare 1 1/2 tablespoons of water, rolled out between sheets of plastic wrap. I had to scoop up the resulting heap of crumbs and call it a press-in crust. But mushrooms, filled out with basil, oregano, egg whites, and goat cheese, turn out to be a pretty good way to get the full taste of quiche without the heaviness. I might make it again, but with my own crust.

Polenta gratin with braised fall greens, goat cheese, and roasted red bell peppers is such a good, simple idea that I was embarrassed not to have thought of it. Warm little polenta cakes are topped with an array of dense, complementary flavors. It was one of those moments where I could actually imagine, if only for a second, living happily ever after as a vegetarian.

Minimal in structure but not flavor is stir-fried scallops with sun-dried tomatoes and baby bok choy. The tomatoes and soy combine for a powerful umami wallop and the bok choy lends a springy crunch.

My one foray into dessert did not go well. Butternut squash flan sounds like a good idea (squash replaces some of the egg and cream with its body and sweetness) but this one's soggy and bready. I tried twice, thinking it my mistake, but no. Even my son wouldn't eat it.

Maybe desserts aren't really the point if you're on a health and fitness quest. If a slimmed-down plate without major flavor compromises is your holy grail, "Cooking With the Seasons" has some ideas worth considering. And if it doesn't appeal to you now, put it on a shelf where you'll be able to find it in June, when your swimsuit makes its dreaded appearance again.