by Risa Nye
Some people think everything tastes better with jam. Since I happen to be one of those people, it’s no surprise that I dove enthusiastically into Rachel Saunders’ new cookbook Blue Chair Cooks with Jam & Marmalade , which features jam as an essential ingredient in a lavish array of recipes.
If you wanted to judge this book by its cover, you’d see right away that Saunders opens up the possibilities for using jam and marmalade in ways that are both delightful and unexpected. What you can expect after reading and trying the recipes in Blue Chair Cooks with Jam & Marmalade is a new respect for the many creative ways jam can elevate and enhance everything from babka to braised short ribs. Cocktails or cake, soup or sausage—there’s a place for sweet or savory additions that create new and delicious flavor affinities. In Saunders’ words: “Jam has definite limitations as an ingredient, but then so does any ingredient; and within its limitations, the possibilities are infinite.” With over 150 original recipes, you’ll see for yourself how far beyond toast you can go with jam and marmalade.
In her introduction, Saunders lets the reader in on her thoughts about enhancement and balance of flavors. As an example, she cites her recipe for seafood paella, and notes how “a small amount of nectarine jam accentuates the natural sweetness of the tomatoes, carrots, and onions.” Nectarine jam in seafood paella? Yes, absolutely. It’s just a short hop from here to the BCF (Blue Chair Fruit) BLT, which features tomatoes, bacon and Early Girl Tomato Jam. (We’ll get to the Brussels sprouts and kumquat marmalade later.) Saunders also includes a helpful tutorial on the distinctions between jam, jellies, marmalades and fruit butters, along with an explanation about which of them may be called for in a recipe, and why. It’s all about texture, color, consistency and sweetness, along with acidity, temperature, and moisture content.
The book is organized by time of day. To be honest, she had me at breakfast: English Muffins, Brioche Mousseline, several types of babka, and yes, jam-filled doughnuts. Still in the breakfast/toast zone, Saunders includes recipes for Fruited Irish Brown Bread, made with Seville orange marmalade; Banana-Pecan Bread with citrus marmalade, and a very hearty Sesame-Apple Granola with apple butter. In the mood for waffles? Saunders has syrup recipes that you will want to drizzle—or, more likely, pour— on top of your Belgian waffles.
Two words: popovers and jamlettes. Saunders’ recipe for popovers, those “rich, eggy, crusty little breads,” can be “whipped up in a matter of minutes.” They are a perfect brunch food you can slather with jam and eat hot out of the oven. Nothing better than a hot popover. I hadn’t thought about making a jam omelet in years. As Saunders describes this dish, “It is at once versatile, soul satisfying, and practical.” Also: delicious, rich, and a real treat for breakfast or as a dessert. If you’ve never tried one of these, it’s high time you did.
Moving on through the book, Saunders looks at foods that are typically served in the afternoon. So we have sandwiches, salads, and a variety of what she describes as “party foods” in this chapter. Just in time for the holiday entertaining (and eating) season, you’ll find dishes appropriate for the winter holidays—since those office parties and casual get-togethers often begin or overflow into the late afternoon. The recent rainy afternoons cry out for bowls of hot, satisfying soup, and you’ll see several options in this part of the book: Tomato-coconut, Beet with Plums and Coriander Yogurt, Yellow Split Pea and Spinach. Afternoon means tea time also, so this chapter includes recipes for sweets such as trifles, cupcakes and scones, along with some suggestions for composing tea sandwiches featuring jam, fruit butter or marmalade. Lift a pinkie and try a trifle.You will find several recipes for jam and marmalade in the Afternoon section too: kumquat, rhubarb and red raspberry, and aprium-strawberry (apriums are an apricot-plum hybrid which Saunders says are “one of the best jam fruits”). The cakes for afternoon (or anytime) are beyond tempting. There are vegetable recipes here too, not to overlook the collards, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and onions. The Thanksgiving recipes, which I discovered too late for this year’s family meal, provide inspiration for next year—but if you love cranberries as much as I do, ignore the calendar and go for the Cranberry-Apple jam or the Cranberry Anadama Bread. Or the pecan pie.
Looking at the Winter Holiday section, I can almost hear sleigh bells ring. Fruitcakes (yes, fruitcakes!) full of candied fruits, marmalade, bourbon and spices—I say, give it another chance. And chase it with some Swedish Glogg.
And finally, we arrive at the Evening chapter, which begins, naturally, with cocktails, and concludes with desserts. Saunders has divided this chapter into smaller sections, each of which is “a miniature world of its own that compliments the others. The recipes range from nibbles . . . to main-course dishes . . . to elegant desserts,” which means that this section has the widest variety of all: drinks and appetizers (including Savory Granola, full of “palate-stimulating textures and flavors”); soups, salads, and sauces; pasta; paella; chicken dishes; short ribs (Braised Short Ribs in Berries and Red Wine) and brisket; sausages; cheese and jam pairings; more tempting desserts—including ice cream—and a strawberry shortcake that will have you longing for summertime. The Fool and Eton Mess were new ones on me, but I would be willing to give them a try. Along with the Sidecar.
I had the opportunity to meet with Rachel Saunders recently to talk about her book and the Blue Chair Fruit company. The book was three years in the making, and it’s clear that she put a great deal of thought into each recipe and the accompanying text, and to how the book is organized. Taking the reader though a whole day, from the “what do I want to eat for dinner tonight” perspective, she says, is more organic—it’s “how I think about cooking for myself.” This book is the “more elegant” cousin to her first book, Blue Chair Jam Cookbook , which was nominated for a James Beard Award.
I commented on the photographs in the book, and learned that those are her hands basting, stirring, rolling pie crust, preparing the jelly roll, dipping the sandwich in the soup, and taking hot things out of the oven. When she says about herself, “You can tell I’m hands on,” she means it literally. You won’t see her face—that’s the way she wanted it—so there’s an almost earthy, homespun quality to the pictures. Above all, she wanted the photographs to feel real. They do. Not only will the reader see what a dish should look like, there is a very real connection to the person whose hands are spreading the jam on the pudding or shaping the bread dough. Most importantly, Saunders said she wanted the pictures in the book to “convey a spirit. There’s a spirit behind food for me.”
Rachel Saunders has created a beautiful book that is full of that spirit. She blends unexpected flavors together—both the sweet and the savory—in a stunning collection of recipes that transcends the traditional. It’s a whole new day, with jam.
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Risa Nye lives in Oakland. Her articles and essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Monthly, Hippocampus magazine, and several anthologies. She writes about cocktails as Ms. Barstool for Nosh at berkeleyside.com and about other things at risanye.com.