Delectable Chemistry

In life, in love, and especially in the kitchen, a handful of qualities or ingredients will collaborate to produce something incredible. While each ingredient lends its particular property, some strange magic occurs during the process of combination. Something tweaks the assembly of these few items and creates an extraordinary whole. Today I experience this magic as baking.

With my collection of tiny extract bottles and spice canisters, I feel like a medieval apothecary. I arrange my ingredients on the kitchen counter and place the large bright mixing bowl atop a wooden cutting board. A devil’s food cake mix, 2 eggs, a stick of butter, vanilla extract, hazelnut extract, instant coffee, cinnamon, white and semi-sweet chocolate chips—this array promises a delectable future.

After preheating the oven to 375, I open the devil’s food cake mix. The rich smell of cocoa rushes out of the opened pouch as I tip the light brown powder into the bowl. It falls quietly into the bowl, and I understand that the powder has a loosely packed, fluffy texture. I measure cinnamon into my palm—about a quarter of a palmful—and add it to the cake mix.

Next comes the instant coffee, in its fat glass jar. I enjoy the smell of the instant coffee, though I never prepare it as a drink. The granules smell earthy, woody, and slightly bitter—the smell is deep and dark. Since this is the only ingredient I’m measuring with a utensil, I don’t bother to use my measuring spoons. I retrieve a regular spoon from the silverware drawer and add a spoonful of instant coffee to the other dry ingredients.

I whisk together the dry ingredients, watching the dark streaks of coffee fade into the softer brown of the cake mix. I pour in a handful of semi-sweet chocolate chips and two handfuls of white chocolate chips. I apply the whisk again, ensuring that all the chips are thoroughly coated by the cake mix.

I unwrap the butter and place it in a sturdy coffee mug with a handle. I pop it in the microwave to soften for 45 seconds. While the microwave drones and the kitchen fills with the smell of melting butter, I add a splash of hazelnut extract and two splashes of vanilla to the batter. When the microwave beeps in completion, I retrieve the butter. I add this to the mix as well.

Now comes a tiresome baking task: cracking eggs. Currently my favorite method involves lightly tapping the egg on the counter and cracking it over a separate bowl. I crack my two eggs in the large mug, vacated by the softened butter. I save the eggshells for use in our garden.

The melted butter, extracts, and eggs transform my fluffy dry mixture into a sloppy mess. I use the whisk to incorporate the new ingredients; I watch my batter take on streaks of dark brown. Setting the whisk aside, I prepare to tackle the batter by hand. My left hand rests on one corner of the square bowl while my right hand massages the mixture within. I rotate the bowl with my left hand and mix its contents with my right. The well-mixed batter feels thick and slippery—a textural contrast to the few clumps of dry powder that need to be incorporated. As I mix, I can feel the small chocolate chips, carried along in the current of batter. Since they were well-coated with the dry mix, they do not fall out of this happy stream.

When the batter is thoroughly mixed, I begin preparing my baking surface. I line a cookie sheet with shiny foil and apply cooking spray. Because I can’t see whether I’ve given the sheet an even coat, I slide a paper towel over the foil. Now I can see that my foil’s shine has become slightly foggy.

Using a small, spring-loaded scoop, I create balls of dough. I can fit twelve balls on the cookie sheet, spacing them at least an inch apart. The scoop ensures that the cookies will be about the same size. As with mixing the batter, I can keep one hand clean. My clean right hand holds the scoop while I shear off extra dough with my left.

I place the cookie sheet, with its small chocolate burdens, on the lower oven rack and turn on the oven light for extra visibility. I set the timer for 11 minutes and put the cinnamon, instant coffee, hazelnut, and vanilla back on my shelf, in their proper places. I wait.

Soon the smell of transformation wafts from the kitchen, and the oven chimes its solicitous one-minute warning. I return to the kitchen and take up my purple oven mitts. Large and long, these mitten-shaped protectors have heavily textured silicon outside and soft fabric inside.

The oven display flashes as the last minute elapses, and then the timer begins its persistent beep. I lower the oven door, catching a glimpse of my cookies. Illuminated by the oven light, they are easy to spot—puffy dark circles on a bright stage. I bring out the pan and balance it on the stovetop. I close the oven and remove the mitt from my left hand. With my right, I hold the cookie sheet steady; with my left, I gingerly press the center of several cookies on the tray.

To tell if the cookies are done, I must pay attention to their surface texture and smell. Their color has changed, become darker and less glossy. The smell has changed too—all traces of the batter’s raw, wet aroma are gone. When I press each with a finger, the cookie feels firm but not rock-solid. One minute more and these will turn to disks of concrete. Each cookie has some give. All the cookies display a few fault lines—cracks and crinkles that tell me that they are done. Here and there, white chocolate chips twinkle invitingly against their dark chocolate surroundings.

From experience I know that I can’t take the cookies off the sheet right away. Because these are made from a cake mix, they are not crunchy or sturdy like other cookies. They are fluffy and light, similar to madeleines. Removing them before they’ve had time to cool will mean lots of breakage. Though broken cookies taste just as good, they don’t look as appealing, and they leave the cookie sheet a mess. So I wait.

Five minutes pass, and I decide that the cookies are cool enough. I gently rotate each cookie, freeing it from the foil. I stack the cookies on a plate. I arrange them asymmetrically.

One cookie doesn’t make it to the plate. It is warm and soft, its chocolate flavor rich and complex. The cinnamon and coffee heighten the overall flavor in perfect subtlety, never coming out into the open. The chocolate chips make tiny creamy pockets in the soft, fluffy texture. Short-lived and long-savored, the cookie is a small gift of magic and science.

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Chocolate cookies

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Dishing up Something Special

Sunday brunch at the Casa Marina Hotel is an impressive sensory affair. As you ascend the front steps and enter the lobby, the smell of salt-infused wood greets you. The hotel is so close to the beach that the smell of the sea has permeated every room. You know that the dining room is on your left, because tantalizing aromas waft out in heavy, warm gusts. You can hear the clink of serving utensils, the splash of ice water pouring into petite glass goblets, and the satisfying pop of champagne corks.

We are ushered into the large, sunny dining room, where light from the copious windows spills onto the white tablecloths and reflects off the metal dish covers along the buffet. To cope with the brightness of the room, I wear my sunglasses as usual, but I’ve added a sand-colored cloche hat, trimmed on one side with flowers made from coiled silk ribbon. The hat’s bell shape and wire-lined brim cut just enough of the glare, so that I can remove my sunglasses when we reach our table.

As I pull out my chair, dark against the white of the tablecloth, I assess the table before me. I can barely make out the slim shapes of two forks, a knife, and a spoon on either side of my folded napkin. I cannot see the napkin, because it camouflages perfectly with the tablecloth. Instead, I see a lumpy something in the middle of my place setting, and I guess (rightly) that it is the napkin. Just beyond my silverware stands an invisible glass of water – a clear glass holding a clear liquid atop a white tablecloth in a bright room is a recipe for invisibility. Once I’m seated, I cautiously feel for the glass. I want to know where it is so that I don’t spill it.

The server asks for my drink order and I request coffee. By this time, the buffet is now open – the newly-available food made audible by the metallic clang of dish covers sliding away and the creaking of chair legs dragging across the floor as other patrons leave their tables. The buffet architecture is always the same, though the food on offer may be arranged differently. At the end farthest from the initial entrance into the dining room, a chef stands making omelettes to order. Next to the omelettes stands a carving station for prime rib. Just beyond these two specialty areas, a series of long tables bisects the dining room. Placed end-to-end, they hold a spectrum of food starting with breakfast dishes (grits, hash browns, sausage, bacon, waffles, biscuits and gravy, and eggs benedict), morphing into richer, heavier entrees (baked queen snapper, seafood with rice, mashed potatoes, and sauteed veggies),  and fading to light, cold foods like fresh fruit, shrimp salad, pasta salad, three-bean salad, and boiled shrimp. The last section of the buffet, a table offering a wide selection of desserts, stands apart.

I begin at the omelette station, where the chef obligingly tells me all the ingredients he has to offer. I appreciate this courtesy because I can barely distinguish the ingredients on display. While I could easily ask, “Do you have mushrooms?” and receive an answer, his willingness to read off the list of ingredients makes the whole process much more efficient. After I request an omelette with cheese, bacon, and mushrooms, he assures me that I don’t have to stand and wait for it. He will bring it to my table – a kindness I did not expect.

When I return to my table after a trip along the buffet for some blackberries, raspberries, and cantaloupe, I immediately notice that our server has brought my coffee. Situated in its pale cup atop an equally pale saucer, the black liquid stands out against the whiteness of the table. I hesitate to add cream to the coffee, knowing that the cream will make the beverage lighter and more difficult to see. The cream itself is not easy to distinguish; it comes in a tiny silver pitcher that is hard to spot on the bright table. I add it to my coffee slowly – so that I won’t spill it and I can see how much I’m adding. I am able to judge the quantity of cream because it contrasts easily with the blackness of the coffee and I can monitor the decreasing weight of the tiny pitcher.

So far, the berries are the smartest visual choice I’ve made. Because of their dark color and manageable size, they are easy to spot and spear with a fork – which means that they don’t give me the kind of trouble that lettuce does. When it comes to desserts, I make another smart visual (not nutritious) choice – a dense chocolate cake with dark chocolate icing. It contrasts nicely with the pale plate and the silver fork, which means I’m less likely to spear a bite that’s too big to handle.

Normally, two champagne drinks come with the brunch, and you have your choice of a mimosa (orange juice and champagne – lovely pale orange color) or a poinsettia (cranberry juice and champagne – an even lovelier dark red color). Today I abstain, but, when I’m in the mood for something bubbly, I prefer the poinsettia for the same reasons as the coffee, the blackberries, and the chocolate cake. In its slender, nearly-invisible glass flute, the red liquid is easy to find on the white table.

However, I cannot always rely on the visual discernibility of my food. Though I enjoy red grapes, brown bread, and spinach for their flavor as well as their visual convenience, I prefer white wine to red, white sauces on pasta, and white pizza. Luckily, the white pizza at my favorite pizza restaurant comes on a bright silver tray, but white wine, served in clear glasses, is consistently hard to spot.

Maybe I will invent a new type of wine charm for the blind with bright red beads and braille tags that identify the kind of wine in the glass (sb for sauvignon blanc, r for riesling, pg for pinot grigio, pn for pinot noir). The charm could fan out across the bottom of the glass and snake up the stem, which is usually the trickiest thing to spot. While I’m creating, I’ll come up with a book of tips on entertaining guests with low vision. First, I’ll completely do away with white table linen and clear glasses. Glasses will be frosted, if served on a dark tablecloth, or tinted green, red, or dark blue, if served on a pale tablecloth. For the stubborn hosts and hostesses who cling to their pristine white tablecloths, I’ll insist on colored runners and bold napkins. Napkins in dark reds, purples, and blues will contrast especially with the silverware. I’ll suggest that the place settings follow a few simple rules of consistency: forks on the left, knife and spoon on the right, and water glass placed just above the knife – instead of floating out in limbo. I’ll ask for dishes in contrasting colors: serve the alfredo on dark plates and the cream-based soups in dark bowls. Serve the chocolate mousse in white, yellow, or powder blue ramekins.

Most importantly, I’ll insist upon a tactic I regularly employ: The Buffet Buddy. When I am in a buffet line, like the brunch of today, I take someone with me – not just anyone, but someone whose descriptions are reliable and informative. It’s not helpful to be traveling a buffet with a companion who says things like, “Um they’ve got this green stuff in a bowl…” I want a companion who knows food and can describe what he or she is seeing: “It looks like some kind of salad with raisins, pine nuts, spinach, and crumbled blue cheese.” It’s infinitely preferable to have a buffet guide who is also a foodie.

I am lucky to have a large supply of competent buffet companions in my life. They’ve helped me navigate countless self-serve situations, from the mysterious lanes of the potluck dinner party to the well-ordered tureens of the Casa Marina.

On the Shelf: A Tour of the Accessible Kitchen (Part 1)

From time to time, I glance at the list of topics I plan to cover in the future of On the Blink, and nothing stands out. As I run my eye over the items on the list, I try to imagine the entry I would compose for each one. Feeling uninspired but eager to write, I publicize my lack of inspiration and ask my friends for help. This entry is a result of one of those times.

My friends’ most recent suggestions included: piano lessons, Tolkien, favorite pastries, favorite childhood hobbies, hummus, cooking tips, mangoes, literary influences, pets, challenges I’ve found a way around, favorite recipes, and more. The careful reader will indubitably observe a prevalent theme in this list.

So I am embarking on another food-related entry, not of my own volition, but because I am friends with a bunch of foodies and they demand it! However, this post will not be limited to food. I will attempt to present cooking as a challenge overcome – not my challenge per se, but a perceived challenge. After all, sighted people often expect blind cooks to have difficulties, and some ill-informed person once said that you eat with your eyes. So maybe we’ll be tackling some clichés here as well!

Let’s begin with the tools I use for cooking.

If you walk into our kitchen from the hallway entrance, you can look to your left and see what we have designated as “Emily’s shelves” — a wire rack of four large shelves, each packed to the gills with my preferred cooking materials. The top shelf boasts nothing but spices, arranged by flavor and classification. Dried herbs like thyme, rosemary, herbes de Provence, oregano, and tarragon are grouped together. Allspice, cinnamon, ground ginger, nutmeg, curry powder, and garam massala make up what I call the “aromatics” section. Between the aromatics and the peppers (cayenne, smoked paprika, black pepper, and red pepper flakes), stands a small, plucky line of extracts. The vanilla, hazelnut, orange, and eggnog extract, each packaged in a little bottle, are an easy tactile divider between the sections of the spice rack. Because spices are often sold in uniform containers, arrangement of the rack is key. I haven’t bothered to make braille labels for each bottle, because it takes less time to pick up the spice and flip open the lid. Rosemary, with its punchy, woodsy aroma, smells drastically different from tarragon, a warmer, smoother scent.

The next shelf down holds all my teas and coffees. Some tea is stored in a wooden tea box with 12 sections for individual teabags. Other loose teas sit on the rack in their canisters. Unlike the spices, the teas are packaged in unique containers, making them easy to identify by touch. The next rack down is the snack rack, but it also contains miscellaneous ingredients for cooking – hot sauce, instant coffee, crystalized ginger, flaxseed, cider vinegar, dried fruit, almonds, nutella, and olive oil. I keep these here so that I don’t have to search the pantry for them. I’m too short to reach most items in our cabinets anyway.

The bottom shelf offers all the implements necessary to my culinary success. From the ground up, the rack holds two cutting boards – one red and one black. I use these when I’m preparing food, because foods contrast nicely with the dark surface. Most kitchens are designed with bright lighting, and a white cutting board intensifies the glare. Even when I’m dicing a red onion, I prefer to use the red cutting board.

(I use red onions not only because I love their flavor, but because the red peel is much easier for me to see. I have difficulty peeling yellow onions because their papery skin does not offer as much contrast to the white layers underneath.)

If you continue to explore the bottom shelf, you will find an 8-inch skillet, an avocado green omelette pan, a bright red reusable water bottle, a glass measuring cup for liquids, and matching sets of metal measuring cups and spoons. Like the cutting boards, the skillet provides a dark (contrasting) surface on which to sauté veggies or scramble eggs. The omelette pan does not offer a high contrast surface, but it does what I have not yet learned to do: it successfully flips my omelettes! And yes, as the color attests, it is from the seventies – it has good kitchen juju because Mom used it to make Dad tons of omelettes in their early years!

The glass measuring cup has large bold numbers that are easy for me to read. The metal measuring cups and spoons have engraved measurements on them which I can feel and read! Though I don’t cook with the red water bottle, I take it everywhere; its bright hue makes it easy to spot on a desk at work or on the risers at chorus rehearsal.

Two dark purple oven mitts hang from the ornamental scrollwork on the sides of the shelving. The outside of the mitts is a rubbery silicon material, while the inside is lined with fabric. When I put them on, they cover most of my arm – an ideal complement to my limited depth perception as I’m reaching into the oven to retrieve what I’ve prepared.

Crystal helped me pick out the oven mitts at the outlets in St. Augustine. The mitts I chose came in two colors: dark purple and pumpkin orange. I desperately wanted the orange, a much lighter shade than the purple, but, as I reached for them, Crystal sternly asked, “Can you see those as well as you can see the purple ones?” I grumbled and shook my head, and, reluctantly, I put back the orange and picked up the purple. The mitts are dark and easy for me to spot on the counter, the table, or the pale surface of the stovetop.

As you move around the kitchen, you’ll find other items that I frequently use – the garlic press, the cheese grater, the large chef’s knife, the Y-shaped vegetable peeler – but these items are not especially tailored to my visual preferences. All the cooks of the house use these items so they stay in their usual places and are easy to locate when I need them.

You will also pass by our microwave, and you might notice that its white surface bears some unconventional markings. Mom has taken a thick permanent marker and traced over the lines of the touchpad, making it much easier to spot the buttons. Sometimes, little circles of tactile tape (a scratchy tape often used to mark the edges of stairs) will appear near the important buttons on the dishwasher or stove – but unfortunately, they disappear after a thorough scrubbing of the appliance.

Knowing my way around the kitchen, I feel confident trying out new recipes or conducting culinary experiments. Nothing can impede my preparation of a quiche, a stir-fry, a casserole, a Greek pasta salad, or a batch of ginger cookies.

But I must use this culinary access responsibly.

Now that I am very familiar with all our appliances, I am not relieved of my dishwashing duties when my tactile labels fall off!

In Good Taste

If I navigate around the kitchen in my parents’ house, I find many familiar objects, and each brings to mind a powerful memory. Wooden spoons, large metal mixing bowls, and white cutting boards remind me of the countless meals they have helped to prepare and the endless hours I’ve spent in happy fascination, watching Mom or Dad turn a handful of ingredients into something delectable.

As children, my siblings and I were welcomed into the kitchen and given tasks to complete. We started with washing vegetables, then we graduated to grating cheese or peeling carrots. Eventually, we learned to assemble whole dishes by ourselves, and we could proudly claim at the next family dinner, “I made that!”

One of my most vivid kitchen memories is a scene that often repeats, varying slightly each time. It begins with my father’s voice calling, “Emily where are you?” because I’m not in the kitchen at the time. If I respond by saying, “I’m folding laundry,” or “I’m getting ready to go out,” his answer is always the same. “I need you in here.”

As I’m making my way to the kitchen, I hear him banging a spatula on the side of the food processor or one of our large metal mixing bowls. When I enter the kitchen, he says a variation of one of the following: “Get a spoon,” (handing me a chip or a wedge of pita), “Here’s your testing implement,” or simply, “Try this.” The next thing he says is always the same, whether I’m tasting spaghetti sauce, hummus, clam chowder, olive spread, salsa, chili, or guacamole. He turns away from the counter to face me and says, “What does it need?”

At this point, I take a minute to savor the mouthful he’s loaded onto the spoon, chip, or pita wedge, knowing that he expects me to talk about the complex flavors I’m tasting. Here, I must tell him whether it needs paprika, garlic, lemon juice or zest, onions, a pinch of cinnamon, allspice — an infinite and well-stocked cabinet of spices looms before me and Dad grins at me expectantly. If I remain quiet, he gently prompts, “Well, what does it need?”

I can’t remember how old I was when Dad first began consulting me on the seasoning of his dishes, a task he could easily do on his own.  Many can attest to his wonderful culinary skills. He would make jokes about my “superior palate” and say that he needed my expertise, even if I hadn’t been involved in the initial stages of making the food. It slowly dawned on me that Dad never contradicted the seasoning I advised, that he always added what I suggested and thoughtfully considered my comments. Later, he would tell anyone who commented on the food that I had helped him season it and that he had done exactly as I’d suggested.

Looking back across the many meals we’ve cooked together, I still find it strange that he defers to me when it comes to seasoning. He has more experience in the kitchen preparing all kinds of things I haven’t even attempted, and he has a knack for knowing which flavors will complement the ingredients he’s chosen. Even as I’m suggesting seasonings, he tells me things about the food we’re preparing, instructing me in the use of the garlic press or showing me how to steam broccoli. He shows me how to use his large chef’s knife to chop vegetables, turning them flat-side down on the cutting board so that they don’t roll away. He tells me that I’ll know when the bacon’s done cooking because, “It’ll stop talking to you” — meaning, the pan will grow quiet. Dad explains that this is because, as the water in the bacon cooks out, it makes the familiar sizzling noise.

So why would he trust me? As I stand next to the huge mixing bowl watching him fold the tahini and lemon juice into this particular batch of hummus, I think, “I’m just a kid.”

And it dawns on me.

When it comes to garlic and pepper, he lets me call the shots, because he trusts my palate, but he is not focusing on his trust. He’s trying to get me to trust myself. He follows my advice so that I’ll understand the consequences of my choices. I’ll know what a little more garlic and a pinch of cinnamon do to the chili — and when the changes I suggest turn into fantastic tastes, Dad wants me to know that I made them happen.

Dad and I stand next to the stove as he stirs his giant pot of clam chowder, one of my favorites. I stand by the cutting board as he chops green onion or opens cans. We chat about the meal to come, both getting excited. He has done the research, looking at dozens of versions of the same recipe, but he doesn’t cook with the recipe in hand. He improvises on the theme.

As I listen to him explain the intricacies of his latest creation, blueberry pancakes with lime zest and spices, I realize that I cook the same way – doing the research and the tossing the recipes aside. We stumble upon rare ingredients in the grocery store, and we both start gushing about what we could do with them. He hands me a bottle of pomegranate molasses and says, “Look, isn’t this neat?” We immediately begin to dream up uses for it, and I slip it into the cart.

I come by my love of good food honestly. Growing up with parents who are both excellent cooks will do that to a person. But I would never have trusted my own culinary intuition if Dad had not put me through my paces as his personal food critic, taken me to the store to pick out my own garlic press and red cutting board (a high contrast surface for chopping vegetables), and indulged every request I made for fancy ingredients that most college students wouldn’t even know how to pronounce.

Dad teases me about my gourmet tastes and surprises me with a new cheese in the same conversation. He refills my spice containers and haggles at the farmers’ market to get me the best mangoes and ginger.

To me, the best moments aren’t peeling the delicious golden mangoes or unwrapping the Stilton with apricots. They’re the moments I spent standing next to him in the kitchen, when we’re working together to make something we love for the people we love.

The Great Lettuce Deception…And Other Embarrassing Moments with Food

At Anneke’s party, my new friend Marilyn and I have found two fortuitous seats on the sofa. Just a few inches in front of us, the coffee table bravely bears the weight of several platters of hors d’oeuvres – an intense cheese plate piled high with my favorite cranberry-studded Stilton, chips and guacamole, a bowl of gorgeous strawberries, and a plate of shrimp-and-corn fritters. More amazing food smells waft out of the kitchen as the oven warms its contents. When the entrees are ready, Anneke brings me a plate. To her credit, the food is admirably piled; it’s easy for me to tell where one food ends and another begins. I can’t identify the foods by sight, so I don’t know that the dark colored stuff is chicken and rice until I taste it. However, once I’ve taken a cursory trip around the plate with my fork, I can identify each food and remember its location – no small feat since I’m notoriously bad at geography.

Making my way through the generous portion Anneke has doled out, I encounter potato salad, rosemary bread, some sort of hot cheesy dish with veggies, a garden salad, and the aforementioned chicken and rice. Each of these items disappears with surprising swiftness, until only the chicken and rice remains. I spear a piece of chicken with my fork and put it in my mouth.

I discover belatedly (once the chicken is in my mouth) that this piece contains a large bone. I begin to conduct a series of awkward tongue maneuvers, trying to pry the meat away  and shuffle the bone to one side of my mouth. Eventually, I manage to do this, and I discreetly (I hope!) pull the bone out of my mouth and place it on the edge of my plate.

Because I consider myself an enthusiastic foodie and adventurous cook, I am often surprised by the flavor of new foods. Because I have low vision, I am often surprised by food in a totally different way. Unexpected textures, unforeseen bones, and decorative lemon wedges have found their way to my mouth many times. I have often mistaken the leafy garnish on the side of the plate for a far-reaching component of the salad. Because I rarely think to use garnish, it doesn’t occur to me – during the spontaneous act of food identification – that other cooks employ it.

Obviously these occasional embarrassments don’t keep me away from food for too long. When someone at the table spills a drink or salts their coffee by mistake, I am gratified in the levelness of the playing field.

One food stands alone as the unequivocal nuisance.

Lettuce.

Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy salads, tacos, lettuce wraps – many things that use lettuce in all its incarnations. But lettuce is a giant pain because it foils the laws of physics that aid the nonvisual diner.

When I lift a spoonful of soup, a forkful of rice, or a wedge of pita filled with hummus to my mouth, the act of lifting serves two purposes. Obviously, this action facilitates the food’s travel from its place on my plate. Also, the act of lifting the food in my hand allows me to weigh it and make judgements about the size of the bite I’m preparing to enjoy. Whether the imminent portion is handheld or borne on a piece of cutlery, I can estimate its size, density, and relative messiness.

Lettuce defies these rules of physics! It dangles off the fork in irritating ways, and its lightness makes it impossible for me to judge the quantity I’m dealing with. Many times, I’ve taken what I thought was a small, modest bite of salad – only to discover, as the damp lettuce bats my cheek and brushes against my mouth, that I was deceived by the greens!  In these cases, I am forced to put the fork down, hurriedly dab at my dressing-speckled face with a napkin, and hope that no one has seen my slovenly descent into ineptitude.

I try to counteract this lettuce deception by obsessively cutting my salads when they arrive. If someone sets a salad before me, I will attack it with vigor, hoping to shred all the offending green into manageable, bite-sized pieces. In this way, I hope to prevent the embarrassing bite of inestimable proportions, the splashing of dressing, the awkwardness that comes with having a bite halfway in your mouth before you realize it really won’t fit.

A similar wildness comes with the eating of linguini (or any long pasta) in red sauce – not because I can’t tell how much I’ve got on my fork, but because the noodles like to swing about and send little red droplets everywhere.

Perhaps this is why I love parties and their finger foods, sandwiches, purees, and other considerate foods – edibles that don’t fight back!

Revamping the Blind Cafe

Some years ago, I heard about the trend in “blind cafés,” places where customers pay for the experience of dining in the dark. Usually staffed with only blind employees, this lightless, sightless eating experience is supposed to a) simulate what blindness must be like, and b) generate empathy, understanding, and other feelings of goodwill and generosity toward the blind community. I take issue with this setup, especially since, as many blindies will tell you, the experience of blindness does not consist of a lifelong grope in the dark in search of necessary objects. In fact, blind people have usually developed a way of knowing what’s on their plate, where their water glasses are, and who’s serving them.

However, blind people have yet to acquire the skills to intuit the menu at any given restaurant and I plan to touch on the issue of The Braille Menu (or lack thereof) in a future blog. For now, let’s just talk about the eating experience.

I don’t know how it feels for sighted people to eat “in the dark,” but I would have no problem with it, especially if I’m eating food I’ve prepared for myself (in my fully accessible kitchen where tactile tape and puffy paint decorate all the appliances). If someone has prepared food for me, a dining companion of mine might use what I’ll call “the clock system” to tell me where certain foods are. He might say something like, “The lemon chicken is at twelve-o’clock, the broccoli is at three, the pork lo mein is at seven-o’clock, and the egg roll is at nine.”

Why did I pick Chinese food for this example? Because whenever my family goes to our favorite Chinese restaurant and we order lemon chicken, my kind brother piles unnecessary decorative lemon slices on my plate. This all started the first time we ordered lemon chicken. I humbly asked Sammy, “Hey, could you not put lemon rinds on my plate? They are hard to see and I end up spearing one with my fork and biting into it.” His response?

“You want MORE lemon slices? No problem!” So lemon slices found their way onto the edge of my plate, in the middle of my fried rice, and even into my water glass at the end of the evening. This is how he keeps me on my toes, always challenging me to practice my skills. No resting on my laurels here!

I can’t complain, though, because Sammy is an excellent practitioner of the clock system. Whenever he sits next to me at dinner, he cheerfully takes me through a tour of my plate before I can even ask for assistance.

But this entry is not just about actualities; it’s about fantasies.

So here’s the deal. I propose that we, the ranks of the blind and visually impaired, commandeer all these blind cafés and dine-in-the-dark establishments and replace them with what I would like to call…The Embossed Eatery.

I confess, this is not an original idea of mine. I am expanding on a piece of hearsay from my friend Karen, who told me that she read an article on Braille hamburger buns. Don’t believe me? Click here.

But I think we can braille more than just hamburger buns, although the buns do provide a tempting platform for lots of suggestive messages. Maybe our eatery can have a “mature menu” so that Little Johnny or Little Sally don’t get a basket of sliders with “touch my buns” written in the seeds.

(Maybe we could open an Adults Only franchise and call it the Dirty Dots Diner! Imagine what an interesting first date that would be!)

For now, let’s just stick with the Embossed Eatery, or perhaps Emi’s Embossed Eatery. I bet you never even imagined all the ingredients we could muster in our brailling endeavor! Chocolate chips, blueberries, raisins, nuts, seeds, capers, and so many more—anything small and relatively round will do the trick! We could make cupcakes verbal with sprinkle messages, leave a literary trail in the pecan crust on a halibut, craft a love note with the green olives on a pizza, or stash a secret code in the feta crumbles on a Greek salad. The possibilities are truly endless!

Like the blind café, I would keep the all-blind staff. And since we’re going for an experience of blindness, all braille menus! No print menus in sight, we’ll just have a board with blurry, low-contrast pictures so that our sighted customers will be forced into conversation with our blind cashiers, servers, and cooks.

Perhaps the Eatery can even take curious customers on a tour of the totally accessible kitchen, complete with braille appliances.

Maybe the Eatery could offer a selection of pre-wrapped items: chocolate-dipped Oreos with a sweet sprinkle saying, brailled candy hearts, muffins with a cheery Good Morning in blueberries, or pre-made sandwiches who announce their contents in caraway seeds along the crust. Perhaps takeaway items like these will become the hottest trend among blind sweethearts, eager to give their loved one food that really says something.

If food is an expression of love, then brailled food could be an expression of so much more!

Visionary Recipes: A series of kitchen-friendly instructions for aspirational blind cooks!

I have decided to embark on a series of “visionary recipes” – recipes written for cooks with low or no vision. I can’t take all the credit for this idea. I must give credit to my friend Henry, an up-and-coming cook. He asked me for some simple recipes, and, because he’s a) totally blind and b) new to cooking, I thought it would be fun to try and design a series of recipes that integrate the extra-visual (meaning beyond visual) aspects of cooking.

Apologies to any of my readers outside the U.S. – you’ll have to convert my measurements and temperatures to the relevant units for your part of the world.

Recipe #1: Broccoli Quiche

Ingredients:

1 9-inch frozen pie crust
1 8 oz. package cream cheese, softened
3 eggs
1-1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
1/3 cups goat cheese (optional)
3 tablespoon sour cream OR a splash of half & half/milk
1/2 red onion, diced
1 handful fresh mushrooms, diced
1-2 cups frozen broccoli, defrosted
3 cloves garlic, pressed
2 tablespoons fresh basil
2 tablespoons fresh oregano
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary
fresh ground black pepper

1. Preheat your oven to 375° F.

2. Grease a 9-inch glass or metal pie pan with butter or cooking spray. Unwrap and unroll the chilled pie crust and press the pie crust into the pan.   Note the smell. Uncooked pastry always has a distinct “raw” floury smell. Poke holes in the dough with a fork to ensure that it doesn’t puff up too much in the oven.

3. Place the pie crust in the oven for 10-12 minutes to brown. The smell will change completely — a buttery scent should replace some of the rawness of the uncooked dough. Handle the pie pan carefully but feel free to gently touch the dough. It may be slightly puffy. It definitely will have a rougher texture. Set the crust aside for now.

4. Saute your diced red onion in a little melted butter or olive oil. Using a spatula or wooden spoon, observe the texture of your onions. When they start to soften, add the mushrooms. Here you are at liberty to add some seasoning – herbs, black pepper, whatever you like. You will be able to hear your veggies sauteing – it’s a low, musical hiss as they release water and start to caramelize. When they stop “talking” to you, you’ll know they’re cooked through, but since they’re going to cook a bit more inside the quiche, you don’t have to saute them all the way. Just make sure the onions are nice and soft and the mushrooms feel soft. The mushrooms will start to feel glossy, a very different texture from their spongy, rubbery uncooked state.

5. In a large bowl, mix the cream cheese, eggs, cheese, and diced herbs. Fold in the sauteed veggies and defrosted broccoli.  Add a few turns of black pepper and a few spoons of sour cream or a splash of half & half. Mix thoroughly. Revel in the squishy sound of the quiche filling as it comes together. I particularly enjoy the wetness of the sound and the sensation of folding together so many different textures. This is why I use a wooden spoon when cooking – I feel it allows me the most direct experience of the textures. Texture is very important here; you want your quiche filling to be slightly wet (that’s why you add the sour cream or milk/half & half). You don’t want to be able to slop it around, but you don’t want the filling to be stiff and immovable either.

6. Pour the mixture into the pie crust. Sprinkle fresh herbs on top of the filling. Not only do the herbs make the quiche look appealing for your sighted guests if you happen to be sharing (and believe me, they’ll hope you are!) – they add an incredible dimension of aroma as the quiche cooks.

7. Bake the quiche for 35-40 minutes until it is golden brown around the edges and does not jiggle. If you stick a fork in the quiche and it comes out clean, the quiche is done. When you insert the fork, you will be able to feel if the quiche is loose – in which case it will need a few more minutes – or firm – in which case it’s ready. You can turn off the oven and leave the quiche inside for 2-3 minutes to brown the top. A cooked quiche will smell different as well. There is a sweet spot when food is perfectly cooked when all the scents come to the forefront – like a smell crescendo. You’ll be able to spell the golden brown crust and herbs first, and somewhere underneath that, you’ll smell the notes from the cheese and veggies. It’s important to understand what you’re smelling for and exactly how much time you have before that delicious bubbly quiche smell becomes an unforgettable burning, rubbery, inedible quiche smell.

8. When your quiche is done, remove it from the oven and let it cool somewhere. It’s best to let it cool for a while before you try to cut it, or you’ll have a mess on your hands – albeit a delicious mess. And it’s even good cold! So go crazy! Enjoy your quiche in a matter of minutes or, after it’s cooled down, stash it in the fridge and enjoy it later!

A few notes:
• If you don’t have fresh herbs, you can use dried herbs. I sprinkle dried herbs on every savory dish I bake in the oven.
• You can substitute other cheeses and veggies. Some veggies, like zucchini, work better if they are sauteed first.
• I have made several successful quiches with almond milk instead of regular milk and cream cheese. However, since the almond milk is low in fat, the quiche requires quite a bit more liquid. But the overall texture is much lighter and I find that the flavors of some veggies come through a lot better with almond milk.

I found this exercise in recipe-writing surprisingly challenging. As an avid cook with low vision, I didn’t realize just how much I use my eyes in the kitchen. And here I thought I was the queen of smell and texture observation. I guess I’ve got work to do! I’d also appreciate any suggestions you have for improving this nonvisual recipe.