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Bright Flavors

On retreat, food is fresh, simple, and surprisingly sumptuous. Why not try it at home?

By Charity Ferreira

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People go on a retreat to open to something new in both body and mind," says Hugo Roberto Gutiérrez Marrón, the chef at Haramara, a yoga retreat center near Sayulita, Mexico, known for its fresh, inventive natural cuisine. "The food they eat should caress their senses, elevate their mind, and feed their body and spirit."

Wouldn't it be amazing if every meal you ate infused you with such a feeling of well-being? Great retreat-center cooking isn't about complicated recipes or spending hours in the kitchen. At Sagrada Wellness, a retreat center near San Luis Obispo, California, chef-owner Eva Inglizian prepares rustic family-style meals that celebrate seasonal produce and whole grains: a layered "fried rice" with brown rice, eggs, ginger, crisp carrots, snap peas, and fennel; kale leaves sautéed with sesame oil, garlic, and sesame seeds; roasted fresh poblano chilies filled with local goat cheese."People are so moved by the beauty and the freshness of the food," Inglizian says. "When they see how simple it is, they get reinspired to cook for themselves. Which is why people come on a yoga retreat in general—to reconnect, get reinspired, and then take a little bit of that back home with them."

Eating well on a retreat feels effortless and satisfying, thanks to the thought and care put into every meal. But even amid your regular routine and responsibilities, you can create the conditions for the kind of easy, delicious, healthful eating you enjoy on a retreat by applying some of the principles of retreat-center chefs to your own cooking.

Fresh is Best

"Fresh" isn't just a buzzword at retreat centers known for great food. It's the basis for an entire cuisine, which is why many retreat centers grow their own produce or source it as locally as possible. Whether your fruits and vegetables come from the local farmers' market, a CSA program, or your own backyard, the fresher they are, the easier it will be to turn them into a spectacular meal.

"Fresher is better for so many reasons: taste, texture, appearance, nutrients," says Denise Roa, the executive chef of the culinary center at Rancho La Puerta, a health and fitness resort in Tecate, Mexico. Among the offerings at Rancho La Puerta are cooking classes using ingredients from the ranch's extensive organic farm. "Take our carrots or spinach, for example. They're so bursting with moisture and their own flavors that I don't have to overcook them or mask or enhance their flavors with cream, butter, or salt," says Roa. "We teach a minimalist cooking method, and the reward is a vast complexity of flavors."

Choose Your Technique

You might think that complicated techniques are what's behind the magic that retreat-center cooks work on their raw ingredients, but by mastering a handful of simple cooking methods, you'll be able to prepare just about any vegetable in a way that maximizes its flavor. Most vegetables can be steamed, sautéed, roasted, or grilled, but each technique imparts its own character, and which one you choose depends on the finished dish you have in mind. Craving a cool, crisp vegetable salad? Steaming yields fresh-tasting, bright vegetables with a bite to them—think summer beans, snap peas, baby carrots, just-tender summer squash. Toss them in a vinaigrette and eat on their own, or add them to cooked grains or beans for a heartier meal. Want to cook firm root vegetables like sweet potatoes and beets for a warm side dish or salad? Roasting concentrates their sugars for a deep, mellow flavor. Need a fast, flavorful way to cook sliced vegetables like zucchini, eggplant, or bell peppers for tucking into sandwiches? A few minutes on a hot grill yields tender veggies that carry the flavor of the marinade you brush over them before and after grilling.

By applying different techniques to different vegetables and taking note of how they transform, says Gutiérrez, "you'll develop a kind of sixth sense" for preparing vegetables that translates into a broad repertoire of healthful meals—and you'll have plenty of ideas for what to do with the vegetables you bring home from the farmers' market.

Seek Contrast

Retreat-center chefs know that one of the keys to making healthful food appealing is to include a variety of colors and textures in each dish. "That old saying 'We eat first with our eyes' applies to everything I prepare," says Roa. "The bold use of color is very appetizing and so easy [to achieve] in all seasons with vegetables."

In your own cooking, think about balancing colors and textures as well as flavors. Top a bowl of rice and colorful curried vegetables with crunchy toasted peanuts, shaved coconut, and a few torn fresh cilantro leaves. Add crisp, paper-thin slices of raw fennel to a salad of roasted red and gold beets and curly baby spinach leaves. Accompany a smoothly puréed red pepper soup with a dollop of bright pesto and a crunchy toasted crouton. When your food is a sensory pleasure, you'll enjoy it until the last bite.

Add a Flavorful Finishing Touch

A drizzle of flavored vinegar, a squeeze of lime or lemon juice—bright, acidic ingredients like these are one of the reasons that dishes prepared for you on retreat sing with flavor. To put flavorful finishing touches on dishes you cook at home, experiment with freshly squeezed citrus juice and see how just a teaspoon or two can highlight the flavor of soups, salads, vegetables, and fresh fruit.

In addition to fresh lime juice, mild rice vinegar is a favorite ingredient of Inglizian, who drizzles it over slices of cucumber and papaya to make a sweet and tangy salad. "It's so simple," she says, "but it really stands out to people."

Be in Balance

Conventional wisdom says you should eat your biggest meal of the day at midday, with a lighter meal in the evening. But warm weather and activity-filled days call for light, easily digested midday meals that leave you satisfied but not so full that you're groggy in the afternoon.

At Prana del Mar in Los Cabos, Mexico, guests have a light snack of fruit first thing in the morning, followed by a heartier breakfast after morning practice. The midmorning meal "gives that digestive fire substantial fuel for the rest of the day, to help with the recovery of the muscles and to energize the more subtle systems of the body," says founder Erik Singer. Since afternoon practice is only a few hours away, lunch is a lighter meal that might include salad greens, whole grains, and lots of fresh fruit and veggies.

Whether your days are filled with meetings and carpools or yoga classes and beach time, you can balance your energy throughout the day by eating lightly before periods of activity and making every meal a combination of fresh produce, whole grains, and protein-rich plant foods such as beans and legumes. "For the midday meal, I like to focus on complex carbohydrates like wild rice, quinoa, and all sorts of beans," says Jean-Baptiste Belledent, the owner of Xinalani in Puerto Vallarta. "This takes care of the high energy needs of the day instead of giving you peaks of power and letting you down when you really need it."

Sate Your Sweet Tooth Naturally

When you satisfy your sweet tooth retreat-style, you might be surprised at how the taste of foods like fresh fruit, dates, coconut, and raw honey edges out the desire for more refined, processed desserts. Shift your palate by making a habit of indulging in naturally sweet treats. At Xinalani, the cooks blend ripe mango pulp and freeze it for a smooth sorbet without added sugar, something you could also try with ripe strawberries, peaches, or melon. "The natural sweetness of fruit gives you the same rush of pleasure and energy," Belledent says.

At Sagrada Wellness, Inglizian makes an icy, thirst-quenching agua fresca from just three ingredients: ripe watermelon, fresh lime juice, and water. "You could add a little agave if you like, but usually the pure sweetness of the watermelon is enough," she says.

Get the Recipes:

June 2012

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