Rachel Saunders is known throughout the San Francisco Bay Area for her innovative and delicious jam and preserve company called Blue Chair Fruit. The release last year of The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook has received rave reviews, giving her national recognition. Recently, we had a chance to visit her home kitchen in Oakland, California where we talked about the savory as well as the sweet, explored childhood influences and took a peek inside a very full pantry.
Rachel, her husband, and their dog Larry live in a sweet little house located on a quiet corner in Oakland, California. The property is surrounded by a tall fence draped with greenery and you enter the yard through beautiful old wooden door. Her house and kitchen have a vintage feel that is at the same time fresh and modern — a lot like Rachel herself.
Several years ago, Rachel moved to California from the east coast and fell in love with the produce markets here. The fruit in particular was so beautiful that she was inspired to learn how to make jam. After a period of trial and error, she finally was able to acheive a perfect balance of flavor and texture. From these years of experimenting, her company Blue Chair Fruit Company was born.
Rachel had a hard time finding good jam recipes in books. There was a lot of lazy cookbook writing, especially around the process of jam making. So she wrote The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook and did her best to be succinct and yet explain everything in exact detail. The photos that show what jam looks like at various stages of doneness is unique to her book and a feature she is proud of.
One thing you probably won't find her doing in her home kitchen is making jam. "I just can't make jam in small, home-sized batches anymore," she confessed. However, she does do 95% of the cooking for her and her husband, and also cooks meals for her employees. She recently threw a Southern-theme potluck at the jam factory where there was gumbo, sautéed pecans, red velvet cake and pimento cheese. Next time she is considering paella and its accompaniments!
Questions for Rachel Saunders (and Her Kitchen)
What inspires your kitchen and your cooking?
The same thing that inspires Blue Chair Fruit Company: Modern nostalgia. I love the vintage feel of my kitchen and the fact that it is a separate room in my house. I grew up in a Victorian that had a long hall leading to the kitchen at the end of it, so I don't care for open kitchen plans. My cooking is ingredient and flavor focused. I like discovering a grain I've never used before or being inspired by a big bunch of kale.
How would you describe your cooking style?
Italian meets California. Simple peasant cooking, really good pasta, no frou-frou sauces. Some Spanish and Mexican flavors, too.
Best cooking advice or tip you ever received:
For savory, salt is key, for sweet, lemon is key.
Any special hints for jam making?
Do everything by taste. it's important not to skip adding the lemon juice as it is essential to balance the flavor. You will know you've got it right when the flavor just pops. With strawberry jam you have to use enough sugar and lemon juice. Just keep tasting. It needs to have a candy-like aspect.
What is your favorite kitchen tool or element?
My Martha Stewart silicone spatula. It does almost everything! I also really like my Dualit toaster. It makes the most perfect piece of toast. And the Le Creuset pieces we got as wedding gifts.
The most whimsical thing in your kitchen?
My egg/eggs painting.
What about those gorgeous copper jam pots you use at the Blue Chair Fruit Company?
They're from France, made by Mauviel, and I feel these are the best pans for jam making. They're the perfect size (11.5 quarts) for all the recipes in my cookbook. The flat bottom and slightly flared sides are perfect for moisture evaporation.
What's the most memorable meal you've ever cooked in this kitchen?
An Italian feast on the day after Thanksgiving: Spinach gratin, meatballs with pine nuts and pancetta, polenta, chicory with persimmon, and a tarte tatin made with quince and rose geranium.
What's always in your pantry?
My pantry is quite extensive! I'm trying to use up a lot of things. Right now I'm most excited about some paprika an aunt brought back from Madrid. I've also just discovered how versatile allspice is!
I'm addicted to tea. My favorite is Bewley's Irish Afternoon Tea and in a perfect world, someone would bring it to me every afternoon with a few little tastes of something, little cookies or some dark fruitcake.
Is there anything you hope to add or improve in your kitchen?
A big splurge would be to have the kitchen re-plumbed and to put in a real espresso machine. Meanwhile, Oakland's own Blue Bottle Coffee offers the best cup. The texture and temperature of the milk is really important and they do it perfectly.
What was your childhood like, from a culinary point of view?
Well, if you read the dedication in my cookbook you will see that I thank my parents, Anna and Richard, and that I reference a step stool that they gave me as a child so that I could reach the kitchen counter. They sent me a mysterious package after the book was published and when I opened it, there was my childhood step stool! It now sits proudly in my kitchen. I can't remember a time when I wasn't cooking. Even as a small child, I would take all the pots and pans out of the cupboard and pretend to cook.
My mom was pretty much a 50's-style cook but we would bake together. She taught me how to make yeast bread and how to sauté. As a teenager, I liked to make elaborate feasts, like curries with 15 spices. This was not my mom's style but she would encourage me by buying all the ingredients and then clean up the kitchen when I was done. I loved to read cookbooks, too.
Do you have any favorites?
I love Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage cookbooks and Bert Greene's Kitchen Bouquets. I also love Nigella Lawson's How to Be a Domestic Goddess and Bugialli on Pasta. I feel that with these authors something essential is being expressed.
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(Images: Faith Durand; book images by Sara Remington and used by permission of Andrews McMeel Publishing)