Natacha Saunders

In Your Kitchen
Photograph By
Twyla Alston

Natacha and Gayleforce chatting over meal.

Jewels, Gems, and A Gentle Summer Breeze

Artisan jewelry artist Natacha Saunders forms intricate “statement” jewelry pieces she calls Queen rings, Princess rings, and cuff links fit for a King. She does it all from a unique starting point—antique forks. She spends hours visiting estate sales and antique stores finding forks from a certain era for use in these lovely tarnish free wearable works of art. Today, instead of crafting these pieces of silver honed around precious stones, I am asking her to take up a fork for a different matter.

“Teach me to make Arroz con Pollo,” I asked, hoping to learn from the natural merging of her southern influence with a Cuban infusion that is true to her heart.  Responding to the call she gathered several jewels of the true Cuban palette--sofrito, capers, olives, extra virgin olive oil, and cumin. Joining us was friend Gayleforce Ridley..  And we provided white wine, a well-equipped kitchen and of course—forks.

I love to have guests, so any opportunity to light candles and swing in the summer breeze on our southern style porch is welcomed. Although we had just recently met, swaying away with Natacha and Gayle was like connecting with old friends. Over and over the three of us found ourselves raptured in uproarious laughter or captivated in rich thought.

For the Love of Olive

Natacha laid out spices, vegetables, and good oil as if creating a scene.  I felt the spirit of her mother’s cooking bursting from her as she talked and cooked.  We were stepping into a moment of the past.  “My mother was Cuban and my father was from Durham, North Carolina,” she shared, describing  her cooking influences.  In addition to working full time, her mother was an artist and photographer; her father was an entrepreneur.

“My mother learned to make everything taste good with little salt,” she noted which was important because of lupus, a blood condition both her mother and brother shared.  She added that her mother loved to cook and took cooking healthy as a welcomed challenge.  "My parent made both southern American and Cuban dishes.  It was nothing to have breakfast with homemade drop biscuits and dinner with black eyed peas from the pressure cooker… She even made candy.”

“We loved the taste of good extra virgin olive oil,” she noted adding that it was always on the dinner table in their home.  In a distinct display of this fusion she said that her mother had mastered preparing fried chicken with olive oil—a favorite she wants to recreate someday.

The Artists Stroke and the Builders Saw

Natacha’s mother passed away when she was 11 years old leaving the legacy of her heart for family-- love of art and unconventional wisdom.  With her mother no longer there, she and her brother took on responsibilities to help their father in their five-bedroom house.  He taught them to maintain an evening routine with homework, cleaning and cooking complete often before he arrived home from work. 

He taught them how to prepare a meal and get all the elements-- steamed vegetables, rice and the meat—ready at the same time. He also taught them to prepare traditional southern dishes such as pork neck bones and oxtail.

They were empowered in ways not typical for teens as well.  "He taught me to use tools when I was 12," adding if "I wanted a stool I could go get the table saw and build it." When she was 13 her artistic inclination emerged to a greater extent as she began to make and sell jewelry.

When she was fourteen, her mother’s parents moved into the basement apartment of their home.  Her grandfather who was also an artist “could cook anything. Even though my grand-mother cooked more often, he was actually a better cook,” she said. He cooked foods from all over the world.  “At that time I didn’t know how special it was for him to make us baklava,” she added as an example.

She continued her artistic endeavors up to and after her return from Dillard College in New Orleans. Years later when she was pregnant with her son, she began to study metal smithing at the Torpedo Factory in Virginia and fell in love with it.  “I had to stop when my son began crawling,” she added speaking of the concern for metal pieces falling to the floor of her home.  In 2012 when her son was 13 she realized that she missed metal smithing and the arts community.  

“I wanted to continue making jewelry, but the cost for silver sheets had gone up.”  One day while at work, she was pondering the issue and “a fork” came to her mind.  She started out going to the thrift store and trying different types of forks.  In an exceptional twist of fate a friend who owned an antique stores gave her a single fork. Along with a stone that she had had for many years, Natacha made her first ring.

“You Can Stick a Fork in That”

Natacha and I talked about the description of “craft” placed on artistic forms that are predominantly practiced by women.  She too fell prey to this down-playing of her work.  Discussing her maturity as an artist, she shared that vending at Eastern Market, a friend and fellow vendor spent nearly two hours one day explaining the numerous artistic characteristics of her work.  He was opening her eyes to what her heart could already see.

The culmination of the path towards embracing her art as an artist ripened in 2012 when an operation prohibited her from continuing full time work.  She remembered a time when selling jewelry was enough to pay for her son’s day care and decided to give doing her art full time a try.  And that was it, “you can put a fork in it” as they say.

Arroz con Pollo (Spanish for Rice with Chicken)

This dish, which simply means rice with chicken, is a common dish prepared in many Latin American countries. Most Arroz con Pollo dishes include rice, chicken, sofrito (a combination of onions, roasted peppers, and spices), and some type of legume (pea or bean).  It is a dish that Natacha’s family cooked regularly and she still cooks for her son.  The beauty of this dish Natacha shares is its simplicity. It can easily become a "go-to" dish in your kitchen. 

Makes 6-8 servings

·         8 pieces of chicken (patted dry legs and thigh preferred)
·         ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
·         1 medium white onion chopped
·         1 medium green pepper chopped
·         1 medium roasted red pepper roughly chopped (or pimentos)
·         1.5 tsp cumin
·         ½ tsp pepper
·         ½ tsp Worcestershire
·         10 Spanish olives
·         ½ tsp capers
·         ¼ cup of white wine (one you would drink)
·         1 teaspoon Adobo hot sauce
·         2 1/4 cups of chicken broth
·         1 cup of any long grain rice
·         2 bay leaves

 

Roasting Red Pepper

Clean and dry a pepper to be roasted.

Place the pepper over an open flame with medium high heat and turn until blackened on all sides. Note: You cannot leave the pepper over fire unattended at any time. It must be roasted on all sides before you can leave the stove top.

Using tongs, place the pepper in a paper bag for 5 minutes.

Remove the pepper from the bag, peel and discard the blackened skin.  Chop the pepper for use in the dish.

 

Cooking the Chicken and Rice

In a large, Dutch oven (or heavy bottom pot) heat two tablespoons of the oil over medium high heat. Season the chicken with a mixture of ½ teaspoon of salt, ½ tsp pepper, and ½ tsp cumin. Brown the chicken pieces on both sides, being careful not the crowd the pan. Add an additional tablespoon of oil if needed to complete the batch.

In the same pan, add an additional tablespoon of oil and sauté all the peppers and onions until translucent.

Stir all remaining ingredients into the pan (remaining cumin, salt and pepper, olives, capers, Worcestershire sauce, wine and bay leaves).

Add long grain rice to the pot mixing to distribute evenly.

Pour in chicken broth over the leveled pot ingredients. It should just cover the rice. Replace the lid.

Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 20-25 mins until rice is the normal cooked texture.

Serve with a fresh vegetable or salad.

 

Contact Natacha on Facebook at “Natacha’s Wearable Art”

Completed Arroz Con Pollo garnished with Cilantro.
Natacha with her statement piece, Arroz con Pollo.
Roasting bell pepper for sofrito stove top.
See more of Natacha Saunder’s beautiful jewelry on Facebook as Natacha's Wearable Art or on Instagram as Natachasart. You can reach her at Natachasart@gmail.com

Twyla Alston is a writer, artist, minister and I.T. manager native to Washington, DC. She is passionate about food, gardening, technology, and community development. She has a bachelor’s degree in Information Technology Management and resides in ward 8 with her husband and two children.