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.

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.