Chile Cheese Pie: A Spa Story, a Recipe for Comfort Food, and a Few Healthy Eating Tips

“Food is memories.”

When I heard those words during the movie, “The Hundred Foot Journey,” I broke all the rules of movie theatre etiquette. I reached under my seat and rummaged noisily through my backpack for my iPhone, turned it on with the brightness set at 100%, and tapped the quote in my notebook app so I wouldn’t forget it.

It sums up precisely why I don’t jump on board with current healthy eating trends like gluten free, dairy free, fat free, vegan, Paleo—-and now up for consideration, the Bone Broth Diet. (Even with its promise of shinier hair.)

I have not had one worthwhile memory around eating foods that are missing ingredients from major food groups. Well, actually, I take that back. My son and I recently discovered Raw Vegan Cookie Dough Balls. They are truly amazing—-and memorable.

Memories around food make me smile. They make me feel good. When something in my day pops up and triggers one, it sends me tumbling back in time to the wonderful experience as if it were happening all over again.

A Spa Story

Just last week, I was in my office struggling to find the motivation to get down to the business of doing whatever I do each day. I was feeling distracted and out of sorts—-nothing a scroll through my Twitter feed wouldn’t remedy, I thought. So, I typed in #SavorTheRanch because it always takes me to tweets filled with pictures and shares from my favorite wellness place on earth, Rancho La Puerta.

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#SavorTheRanch

My husband and I lived and worked there for eight years, and images of the Ranch always remind me of that foot-loose, fancy free time of our lives—no kids, no mortgage, and best of all—-free daily maid service.

As I surfed through the tweets and looked wistfully at the photos of the trails we hiked, the beautiful Mexican casitas we lived in, and the amazing guests looking so happy and well, I began to wonder what we were thinking when we left the Ranch and decided to add to the population of the planet. Sure we have two nice kids, but daily maid service, and three organic meals served to you with no clean up afterwards—was it really worth it?

Then I saw a tweet from a guest chef, Virginia Willis that read:

My #recipe for Vegetable Gratin #SavorTheRanch.

The picture underneath was a perfect stack of layered vegetable goodness, sitting in a shimmering pool of savory sauce. It bore a striking resemblance to former Ranch Executive Chef Bill Wavrin’s infamous “Ranch Casserole.” Prompted by less than 140 characters, I was teleported back to the Ranch 20 years earlier, walking up the brick pathway to the dining room with my husband, just before noon on a Friday.

Friday lunch was ALWAYS Ranch Casserole, my husband’s favorite. After leading hikes and teaching classes all morning, a savory plate of vegetables nestled in a soft eggy custard was the perfect way to refuel. We were always first in line, and my husband would step up to the server sporting a big smile and say, “Tres, por favor.” The servers, who he conveniently befriended over the years, would respond favorably by piling three generous helpings of casserole onto his plate. Taking your “seconds” the first time around was a must because even guests splurged on Chef Bill’s Ranch Casserole.

Those were the days, I reminisced. Good times. Good friends. Wonderful memories.

And then my phone rang, jolting me back to the business of doing whatever I do each day. But I noticed I felt better. In fact, I was smiling at the thought of that amazing chapter of my life, so rich with wellness.

A simple food memory turned into a wellness moment and changed the whole tenor of my day. Life is good, I thought, and I’m going to make Ranch Casserole for dinner!

A Recipe for Comfort Food

Later, I rummaged through my stash of cookbooks and found Bill’s masterpiece, The Rancho La Puerta Cookbook. Sadly, it didn’t include the casserole, but I found a close second: Chile Cheese Pie, another staff favorite.

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Found it! Along with the perfect baking dish.

I’m sharing it with you, with permission from Bill, our good friend and spa comrade. He and my husband have continued to work together over the course of their long and notable spa careers. They’ve made quite a team.

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Chef Bill (with me) in his signature chile apron.

The beauty of this recipe is that within just a few minutes, with ingredients you probably have on hand (add whatever you have in your vegetable drawer), you’ll have healthy comfort food of the highest order, ready to serve to your family with no fuss and minimal clean-up. (because we all know who washes the dishes afterwards!) Add a salad like I did, and you’re good to go.

Chile Cheese Pie
with Chef Bill Wavrin

This dish is always a huge hit. Anaheim chiles are mild and sweet, making them the perfect introduction to chiles for anyone who can’t stand much heat. Whole chiles are up to six inches long, and they are layered into the casserole like floppy leaves. For my taste, I jazz it up with a pinch of red pepper flakes. 

6 large egg whites
2 1/2 cups low-fat cottage cheese
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano (dried works fine too)
4 garlic cloves, minced
Pinch of hot red pepper flakes (optional)
Freshly ground pepper
12 Anaheim chiles, roasted and seeded, but left whole
(Note: A 14 oz. can of Ortega whole chilies can be substituted)
1 medium onion, chopped
4 scallions, sliced
1 cup corn kernels
1 1/2 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, shredded

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. In a large bowl, mix the egg whites with the cottage cheese, Parmesan, soy sauce, cumin, oregano, garlic, red pepper flakes, and pepper, and set aside.

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I actually used a few whole eggs too.

3. Spray a 9 by 12-inch ovenproof dish with vegetable oil spray and lay half of the chiles in it. Sprinkle the onion, tomato, scallion, and corn evenly over the chiles and pour the egg mixture over the vegetables. Layer the remaining chiles to cover the pie completely and sprinkle with the shredded cheese.

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Any veggies will do.

4. Cover the dish with a lid or foil and bake in the center of the oven for about 1 hour, until hot and bubbling. Remove the lid or foil and bake 10 minutes longer to brown the top. Let rest for 10 minutes before serving.

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It’s ready!

And A Few Healthy Eating Tips

So, is there a wellness lesson in this story? Maybe so.

Food memories are feel good moments that buoy our spirits and gift us with a moment of joy in the midst of our crazy busy lives. But more so, there’s something inherent in memorable foods that make them good for our health and wellness too:

  • Foods grown well, close to the source, and with minimal intervention. (Buy the best you can with the budget you have.)
  • Foods that are bright and full of color. (Eat from the rainbow, as the saying goes.)
  • Foods prepared by real people with time, effort and love. (Time to head back into the kitchen!)
  • Foods thoughtfully plated and pleasing to the eye. (Get out your nice china every now and then.)
  • Foods shared by friends and family sitting down around a table. (I love family dinners.)
  • Foods eaten in just the right proportions. (Smaller plates work great for this!)
  • Foods so good you want to savor each bite. (Slow down and enjoy, then sit back and remember.)

And there’s more good news. Creating memorable, healthy foods doesn’t have to be hard or time consuming. As Denise Roa, Executive Chef of Rancho La Puerta’s famed cooking school, La Cocina Que Canta, said with a laugh during one of her classes, “I sometimes feel foolish, in my position, saying that good cooking means taking the freshest ingredients you can find, and then doing as little as possible to them.”

Why not remember that next time you’re hungry?

Feel good. Be well. Meg

I love conversations around food. What is one of your fondest food memories? 

. . . or try this week’s wellness prompt on your own:

IMG_5984Wellness Prompt: What food memories to you have? Maybe it’s a specific dish someone in your family makes, an unforgettable food experience you’ve had, or perhaps a meal you shared with your partner in a far away place. Write about it. What other thoughts, details, and emotions are triggered by that memory? How does it make you feel to reminisce about good times around food? 10-minute write . . . go!

P.S. I’ve been having some fun posting my Dinner Prep on Instagram @wellnessacts. Let’s follow each other and see what we can do to get #backinthekitchen cooking healthy food for our families!

4 Comments on “Chile Cheese Pie: A Spa Story, a Recipe for Comfort Food, and a Few Healthy Eating Tips

  1. Loved this food memory post–especially since the ranch has been on my mind this week. Haven’t been yet, but am planning on going later this year. It sounds like such a wonderful place! Thanks for this lovely post, and the recipe too.

    • Hi Risa: Thanks for reading! Yes, a trip to the Ranch should definitely be on your wellness bucket list this year. There is no place like it for reconnecting with your life, as well as recharging and renewing your spirit. In the meantime–check out #savortheranch on twitter! It always gets me through. Let me know when you go. I’d love to hear your Ranch stories!

  2. Your time at the ranch must have been fantastic, Meg. What a wonderful time and now you have wonderful memories. This recipe looks so delicious and I can’t wait to try it.

    • Hi Helene: Yes, a magical time in our lives . . . there I go again wondering what we were thinking! Ha! Thanks for reading.

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