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Posts Tagged ‘Cooking’

First things first — thanks to all who took the time to fill out my blog evaluation survey! Your feedback was really valuable, and I’m delighted that you all want me to maintain my current focus! Btw, for those who haven’t filled it out yet and want to do so, be my guest!

Now that you’ve recommitted me to my previous blogging path, be prepared to be taken deep into a web of neuroses also known as my mind. Yes folks, today I tackle what will no doubt be the first of many posts on this topic, since it’s one that has had to assume a fairly prominent place in my life. I’ve written before about my body image struggles, but I never felt the urge to expand on those thoughts as the problem spiralled out of control. I was trying everything from Weight Watchers to a personal trainer, but the weight kept piling on, climbing higher and higher every month. I finally reached a point of actual terror for my health and decided to take more decisive action — I sought medical help and now attend a full-service clinic run by a physician and devoted entirely to weight loss. It takes a multi-faceted approach and features a diverse staff of doctors, dieticians, physical trainers and psychologists. I was greatly relieved to learn that I am sound as a bell health-wise, even with my weight at an all-time high. Still, I realized full well that this could change at any moment, and I embarked on a dedicated quest to shed the pounds once and for all. Making wholesale changes to your lifestyle has a way of triggering the soul-searching reflex, and I’ve come to an interesting realization over the past few weeks — blindness and weight loss are just about the worst combo ever!

Think about it. Common weight loss wisdom suggests you won’t be able to slim down unless you zealously monitor every bite of food that enters your mouth and radically step up your activity level. Neither of these things jibe whatsoever with the life of the average blind person. I’d be perfectly happy to measure out precisely three ounces of hallibut for my evening meal or an exact one ounce of goat cheese to top off my lunch-time quinoa salad…except I can’t read the display on my inherited kitchen scale. As for reading the callorie content on my breakfast cereal of choice and determining the designated serving size, I may as well try to drive a car. Measuring out level tablespoons worth of olive oil can be tricky with the standard-shaped utensils, and slicing that whole grain harvest loaf into dietician-sized slices relies a little too heavily on hand-eye coordination for most blinks’ tastes. Then there’s the exercise component. Mosts sports require the average blind person to ask a sighted friend or family member for help, a request they may not be able or willing to accommodate as regularly as necessary for sustained benefits. Gym equipment is increasingly difficult to manage, since digital displays and touch-pad controls are quickly honing in on their more accessible, push-button cousins. Blind folks who struggle with mobility issues are as likely to take to the streets for an independent walk as they are to play Pictionary (it may happen, but isn’t too likely :)). Even if they do take the time to learn a route or two and attain the comfort level to travel it independently, they soon get tired of literally covering the same ground every time. Add in the fact that the blind population is chronically under-employed and often lacks the financial resources to make the right food purchases/enlist professional help, and you have a serious conundrum.

Many of these issues don’t really apply to me, so I am in no way using my blindness as an excuse for my current size. I have a great job with a more than adequate income. I live with a partner who’s well able to read me labels, coach me on how to use the treadmill in our building’s workout room and generally pitch in where it’s needed. My fleet-footed guide dog sets a brisk clip on our walks and gives me the confidence to stray far from the routes I would only tackle as a cane user. The rest of it is all too familiar to me, however, and I’ve had to get creative in finding the right coping strategies. Fortunately there’s an answer to everything. Measuring ingredients becomes a snap when I’m careful to buy very concave measuring spoons that hold the fluid in place while I use my fingers to make sure I’ve reached the rim. Ditto for measuring cups, which are the dieter’s best friend provided they come in the right units. A simple set of detachable scoops in 1, 1/2, 1/3 and 1/4-cup measurements will give you all you need to accurately portion out solid food, while a single one-cup liquid measure gets me through on the fluid ingredients. The vessel is small enough that I can tell when it’s half-full vs. three-quarters empty, and it also prevents me from overdosing on any one ingredient. The manual dexterity to produce perfect bread slices has only come with practice, but a really top-knoch, razor-sharp chef knife did wonders to help me refine my technique. Even the label challenge can be conquered with some help from my friend the internet. Calloric and other dietary details for just about all common brands are readily available through a simple google search, while SparkPeople is the perfect accessible web tool for the enterprising cook who wants to get a callorie breakdown of her latest random creation. The web is also, of course, a bottomless source of first-class recipes on days when creativity is running low. The only issue left to sort out in my own kitchen is the problematic scale, and technology will likely solve that one for me too when a talking unit is released (there may very well be one out already).

There’s no doubt that this new effort is very labour intensive, as it would be for anybody. My blindness compounds the effort I put into the program, but may also be arming me well. I’ve become accustomed to working my way through issues that may seem insurmountable at first blush, and resourcefulness has become my watch word in all facets of my life. It’s also bred in me a certain level of determination that I know I’ll need to draw upon if I hope to succeed at this weight loss game for good. It hasn’t let me down yet. With some luck I’ll cross the 15-pound threshold tomorrow…perhaps my blindness and the qualities it’s given me may prove to be an asset afterall.

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My poor, neglected readers…no, this isnt’ my idea of a ghostly halloween prank! I’m alive and actually putting up a post after an obscenely long stretch that I can’t even attempt to justify. I can plead health, life, work and laziness, all of which would be true, but even that combination of factors is pretty damn lame. πŸ™‚ I don’t even know if there are any of you left in this little cybercorner of mine! If you are here, though, I hope you’ll humour me as I ask for your help.

This extended hiatus has definitely rekindled my desire to blog more regularly, but also made me question the approach I’ve been taking so far. I’ve compiled a very brief survey for you fine folk that will hopefully result in a better blogging experience for us all. when I say brief, I really mean it — it’s only four questions. It’s an external questionnaire, since the WordPress survey software is the suck, but it is completely anonymous and confidential.

Go ahead, you know you want to take it!

Many thanks in advance for taking time to provide some input. I hope you’ve been well the past few months, and I look forward to reconnecting with you all in the coming days!

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I wanted everything to be perfect when my teachers came to dinner. It was to be a milestone in my nearly 15-year relationship with them, as it was to be the first time I felt I was giving something back. Mr. and Mrs. C had shepherded me through high school, teaching me so much more than the lessons in latin and classical civilizations they planned so carefully. Their example of a well-suited married couple who managed to work comfortably in the same school set many of us a shining example of what matrimonial harmony should look like. Their compassion and humour levened even the dryest subject, and their quiet competence made lessons in archaic languages seem both effortless and fun. Indeed, his humour, her empathy, and their shared sense of intellectual curiosity made them unlikely favourites among the student body, and their inherently uncool classes were always enrolled to capacity. The special attention they paid me helped restore my confidence after a bruising few years in the private school system, and I gradually came to see them both as mentors rather than mere teachers. Their presence at extra-curricular piano recitals filled me with gratitude, their phone calls and emails never failed to make me smile, and the regular dinners they treated me to through my university years became highly-anticipated social occasions.

Once ensconced in apartment and equipped with the culinary skills to give them something worth having, I lost no time in inviting them for dinner. A phone call in June secured a date in July, and I filled stray moments planning menus of increasing complexity. The week of the gathering I phoned to confirm and received a dreadful shock: Mr. C, who had beaten cancer once before, was showing every sign of a relapse. He was suffering from chronic fatigue, considerable pain and shocking fluid retention, all of which kept him from enjoying the retirement life he’d only begun enjoying a few months before. Two days before our scheduled soiree, he got word that his cancer had indeed returned, this time as isolated cells floating in his entestinal area rather than a single, concentrated tumour. Despite his obvious weakness, Mr. C wouldn’t hear of cancelling our dinner, and I resolved to make it worth his while in any way I could.

Mr. C’ s diet restrictions, which became legion after his diagnosis, cast my menu meditations in a whole new light. He cautioned me that he likely wouldn’t be able to eat more than a few bites, but I was determined to make those few mouthfuls as enjoyable as possible for him while still providing a good dinner for the rest of the guests. My original plans included such inappropriate fair as red meat and my specialty spicy guacamole, which clearly wouldn’t do for a man in my teacher’s condition. Smoked salmon spirals took the place of the guacamole, while spanakopita and homemade hummus rounded out the selection of appetizers. Dinner was to be an Italian-inspired dish, as an homage to Both Mr. and Mrs. C’s favourite type of cuisine. The veal piccata I had planned was easily changed to chicken piccata, served over angel hair pasta and alongside fresh steamed asparagus.

A picture of my chicken piccata in a large frying pan. About eight chicken breasts are covered with a smooth, creamy sauce with a few capers floating in it.

Chicken Piccata

A light, seasonal salad seemed like a worthy addition, and I decided a simple combination of tomato, mango, red onion and basil (with a simple vinaigrette) would complement the meal while hopefully tempting less robust appetites.

A picture of my tomato and mango salad in a metal bowl. The dominant colours in the dish are red from the tomatoes, yellow from the mangoes, and green from the lavish helping of basil leaves.

Tomato and Mango Salad

I suspected Mr. C wouldn’t be up for much in the way of dessert, but that wasn’t going to prevent me from trotting out a dish reserved for my most special guests. My homemade tart, with shortbread almond crust and lemon curd both made by hand, is a time-consuming enterprise that always proves to be worth the effort. My lavish decorations — comprised of fresh seasonal berries — allow me to indulge my taste for aesthetically pleasing objects while deluding myself into believing I’m actually serving up some nutrients, and even my sugar-averse boyfriend usually comes back for seconds. Fresh fruit was available, too, for those who wanted an alternative.

A picture of a large lemon tart sitting on my kitchen counter. The tart is 11 inches in diameter and has a scalloped crust. It's filled to the rim with thick lemon filling and scattered with fresh strawberries and blueberries.

Lemon tart

My delight at receiving Mr. and Mrs. C into my home was tempered with shock at his condition. At least 30 pounds had melted from his frame in the three months since I’d seen him last, and his usually jovial voice had been replaced with the tremulous quavers of an old man. His agile mind was unimpaired, but his probing questions, political barbs and witty repartee were punctuated with long stretches of silence while he tried to recover his strength. He insisted on trying every dish I had made despite my insistence that he eat only what he felt like. He was quick to praise every one, even lamenting the fact that he couldn’t indulge his wish to tackle a giant slice of lemon tart. When the focus shifted to conversation, he thanked me repeatedly for giving him a break from the house he’d been confined to, saying the evening out did nothing but good for his spirits even as it taxed his strength. As we hugged goodbye, he thanked me for putting so much effort into the evening, and I promised to out-do myself when he was well enough to return.

Little did I know that I would never get that chance. The evening at my home was the last social occasionMr. C ever attended. His rapidly deteriorating condition prompted some emergency chemotherapy treatments, which stretched into a month-long stay at a local hospital. He warded off blood infections, pain, and every imaginable discomfort before briefly returning home, where he died in late August.

Bitter-sweet emotions colour my recollection of that evening, which could have been so commonplace at any other time. I rejoice that I had a chance to host him in my home, while regretting the messages of thanks I never got to pass along verbally. I hope, however, that my gratitude to him was communicated another way. Knowing he recognized and appreciated the effort I put into his final dinner out, I like to think the small details spoke to him in ways I didn’t. I hope they showed that, by at least one student, he was loved.

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My last two posts have examined the way in which my senses of touch and smell play in one of my favourite hobbies — cooking. I wrap up the series today with a brief mention of how my ears earn their culinary keep, as well as other strategies I use in the kitchen.

Of the three senses I rely on in this context, hearing plays by far the most minor role. Nine times out of 10 I’d far prefer to blast music than cook in silence, and I’ve never come to grief when I succumb to the urge. But there are times when I’m forced to turn it down and listen. The most obvious example of this, of course, involves pots on the stove. Hearing is the most effective sense I have when trying to determine if something is boiling. The sound of rapidly bubbling water clues me in that it’s time to add the pasta and let it cook. When bringing a stew to an initial boil, I’ll wait for the same sound, then reduce the temperature until the bubbling noise has reached a level that says “simmer” to me. Even if I’m just grilling a chicken burger in a pan on the stove, I can usually gauge how high the heat is set by the sound the meat makes when it makes contact. This is useful, since my sense of touch is far from infallible when setting stove and oven temperatures (though there are ways around that).

Hearing is also valuable when using some of my favourite kitchen appliances, most specifically the food processor. Ever noticed the sound the motor makes when you throw a few onions in there for a quick chop up? Then ever realized the pitch of the motor goes up as the vegetable pieces reduce in size? Well it’s true, and that’s my favourite way of determining whether or not the job is done. I don’t profess to understand why this may be, though I presume it’s because the motor doesn’t have to work as hard on thoroughly chopped vegetables, but I do know it works every time. The same can be said of my trusty hand-mixer, without which I’m sure I’d go mad. When baking a cake, the mixer’s sound differs subtly during different stages of the process. It sounds more laboured when I first beat the butter and then cream it with the sugar, but runs at a higher pitch once the eggs are added and it’s working with a more pliable mixture. It’s a distinction that some may not hear, but I’ve come to recognize it over time simply because I’m constantly on the watch for helpful sensory clues. Relying on the sound of a motor beats having to stick my hands in a batter to see if it’s done — a sentiment I suspect my guests would share. πŸ™‚

Apart from the three senses discussed in this series, my cooking prowess, such as it is, hinges on a few other things.

— Websites: As mentioned in the first post, I really don’t think I ever could have learned to do more than open a jar of peanut butter without the web. Recipe databases like Epicurious, All Recipes and the Food Network provide endless techniques and inspiration for the aspiring cook. When it comes to baking, I have to give credit to one person, Sarah Phillips of Baking 911. This is the Angie of the baking world — a woman who gives real-time, personalized advice and who has never led me astray in more than two years. Her recipes are fool-proof, her techniques are outlined into plain English, and her instructions are detailed and informative. Well worth the nominal annual fee!

In the kitchen itself, I know I’d be lost without a few treasured tools:
1. A good, sharp knife. Having a cutting instrument that gets the job done the first time greatly reduces the chances that I’ll slice my fingers while I cook. Saying “the sharper the better” sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true — ask a real chef!
2. Tools that I can take apart and wash easily to ensure maximum sanitation. Garlic presses are a nightmare for someone who has to rely on her fingers to assess cleanliness, but a simple garlic twist (in which you drop the cloves and rotate the two parts to mince them) is the ideal solution.
3. Measuring tools that aren’t too confusing. I know lots of people have huge measuring cups in which they could easily fid massive amounts of solid or liquid ingredients, but I prefer to keep it simple. This way I’m never estimating my measurements, but always know exactly what I’m working with. A one-cup dry measure and a one-cup liquid measure are all I need (for me, it’s worth the extra time). As for measuring spoons, I choose very rounded types that hold ingredients easily and can stand up to my occasional prodding.
4. Really hardcore oven mits. We’re talking the rubber/silicon type that go nearly to my elbows. I won’t go near my oven without them, nor will I handle one of my completed baked goods unless I’ve used the mits to orient myself (putting the mits on either side of the pan as it sits on the cooling rack gives me an easy way to locate things again without burning myself by accident).
5. A variety of spatulas and knives: spreading things evenly or attractively is not my strong suit (aesthetics in general are a little sketchy), but tools in various sizes help me make things work.

The average pantry/kitchen can be easily adapted for the blind, provided it’s clean and free of clutter. I don’t personally put stickers at strategic points on my oven to demarkate the positions on the dial, but I know from experience it would work. The same could be done on the microwave. Got your red and white wine vinegar in bottles that feel identical? Put an elastic band around one of them and leave it there. The list is endless.

Sightless cooking isn’t always easy, and a reality show featuring a blind chef would be more likely to share network space with Jeff Dunham than Emeril Lagasse, but I’ve found that it’s well worth the effort. Acquiring culinary skills has empowered me within my home and left me able to create a cozy, domestic atosphere where friends and family can be assured of a good meal!

What do you guys think — do my strategies sound like blindguy babble or common sense? If you like cooking, what are some of your favourite techniques? And if you hate it, what keeps you from getting in the game?

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Thanks to those of you who responded to the first part of my series discussing why sight isn’t crucial in the kitchen. The people I did hear from certainly seemed to agree that other senses come into play more strongly than they first realized. Part two of this series delves into the way smell compensates for my lack of sight and sometimes makes all the difference in the world.

Touch is the building block of my culinary “technique”, but smell is the sense that allows me to take things to the next level. My nose is indespensible if I want to produce flavourful dishes that are neither under nor over-prepared. The copious asortment of seasonings in my spice rack and on my cupboard shelves may seem daunting to someone who can’t read labels, but sorting the herbes to provence from the saffron is an easy matter of flipping open the lid and taking a quick sniff. It gets a little dodgier with things like cayenne pepper and paprika, but by and large identifying spices by smell is simple (and fun, if you’re with me in being nerdy like that). πŸ™‚ Touch and smell combine to sort the parsley from the cilantro, but while buying the herbs in the first place, I’m driven solely by which bunch gives off the freshest fragrance. Since I adore strong flavours and will do anything to avoid bland cooking, it’s been fun to get familiar with spices and experiment with them. I suspect smell is a similar guide for sighted cooks, too — eating something with a fowl odour isn’t really anyone’s idea of a good time, is it? πŸ™‚

There are parts of the cooking process that just don’t lend themselves to touch, and on those occasions smell is my most reliable indicator. When preparing a stir-fry I couldn’t tell you when the onions become translucent in the pan, but I know when they smell like they’re cooking and are probably ready to receive other ingredients. If I was waiting for the lamb or veal to turn brown while I seared them for an osso bucco, my dinner guests would be dining at Chez L’HΓ΄pital for a week after coming to dinner at my place. But by removing the meat from the pan when it starts to smell the way it tastes, then double-checking for doneness using my hands, I’ve been able to concoct meals that brought friends back for return dinner dates.

Similar rules apply in baking, when factors like oven strength, humidity levels and altitude can render timers almost obsolete. The recipe may tell me to take the banana bread out of the oven when it’s golden brown on top, but I’m only removing it when an appropriate length of time has passed and the aroma drifting through my apartment makes me want to devour the loaf on the spot. I have a running joke with a cook of my acquaintance, who habitually forgets about appetizers she’s put in the oven and only realizes what’s happened when the rest of us start opening windows to prevent the smoke alarm from blaring. Her nose clues her into why we’re doing this, but would also probably let her know the pastries are ready to eat if she paid attention to it five minutes sooner. πŸ™‚

I also fall back on my olfactory resources when trying to figure out if anything has gone bad in my fridge, as I suspect many of you do too (is there anything nastier than the smell of sour milk)? Even if something feels fine, there’s often an odour that gives it away.

Next time, the few contributions my ears make to my meals, plus the indespensible tools for any blind cook.

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A couple of people have requested a post explaining how I manage to function in the kitchen. Their requests were timely, as I expect to delve into culinary topics in this space occasionally and felt some kind of set-up piece would be useful. This is one topic where I’m very anxious to hear your feedback, since I have a theory on exactly how much our perspectives will differ (I suspect our approaches won’t be all that fundamentally different, even though they may look that way).

Despite the fact that I grew up surrounded by really stellar cooks, my culinary skills are entirely self-taught. Mom wanted me to learn how to prepare my own meals, but her fear for my safety coupled with her inherent distaste for inefficiency usually meant she wound up taking over herself and leaving me to lick the spoon, so to speak. πŸ™‚ It was a similar story in my university days, when I lived with a fabulous housemate to went from a cooking novice to restaurant chef within two years. Her early curiosity for cooking became a favourite hobby, and she was keen to shoulder all kitchen-oriented responsibilities (except dish-washing, and who can blame her there)! Watching my housemate evolve into the gourmet she is today proved to be instructive when I finally had the opportunity to cook on my own. She sought inspiration and developed her skills largely through browsing recipe books and watching the food network, proving the resources were available for those who wanted to tap into them. I generally find websites more instructive than tv shows, so I turned to the net when I needed guidance. I wasn’t disappointed! There’s a treasure-trove of info out there for even the most nervous beginner; basic techniques are explained in real english, recipe variations are available by the hundreds, and some sites will even take the time to explain the rationale behind a certain preparation method (perfect for an over-analytical questioner like me). But all the theoretical knowledge in the world won’t yield a great dinner unless you get in there and make the thing yourself, so I had to take the plunge and learn to experiment on my own.

I won’t lie, it wasn’t always a success as my fingers, taste-buds and poor boyfriend can attest. But over time I figured out that I only really needed three senses in order to function in the kitchen: smell, touch and hearing. In a three-part series (you know you saw that coming), I’ll explain the role they each play.

Touch: It’s probably the sense I rely on most on my epicurian adventures. Contact with my bear hands helps me with preparation basics such as slicing meat to the right thickness, measuring ingredients or determining whether parts of a vegetable need to be discarded, but often I’m able to determine key textural changes in a dish without touching them directly. I can tell whether my risotto is becoming creamy simply by the feel of the wooden spoon as it moves through the mixture. The same goes for oatmeal, lemon curd or any other dish that’s supposed to thicken over heat. Raw meat feels flaccid and almost slippery fresh out of the package, but when cooked adequately it will have a stiffer texture and feel more like the tip of your nose. Is my pasta ready? Pluck a noodle out of the pot with the spoon, let it cool a second and find out. When making whipped cream, I just consult my wrists to know when it’s thickened enough (if they’re working too hard, they’ve already done enough). Such heavy reliance on my hands has resulted in the odd cut or minor burn, but frankly that’s par for the course — I have yet to meet a sighted cook who hasn’t come to grief in similar ways. If I was afraid of run-of-the-mill physical injuries, I’d be single-handedly keeping takeout joints afloat now and would be a treasured Pfizer customer by the time I hit my thirties (my lipitor consumption would probably be off the charts)!

Touch is just as key, if not more so, in baking. Tactile means are perfectly adequate to judge whether all the flour has been incorporated into a batter, whether the pieces of butter I’m cutting into my pastries have reached the pea-like size they need to be, or whether eggs have been thoroughly beaten into an immulsion (yokes are very distinct and must be beaten until you can’t feel them any more). I can usually assess whether a pastry will be flaky enough by touching it before it goes into the oven (I look for cold and crumbly rather than excessively stiff). The same goes for completed baked goods; the old toothpick test works wonders for assessing the state of a cake or loaf, and I’d bet any money that’s what most of you go by too.

Tomorrow, smell; the sense that actually makes my dishes worth eating!

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