Chocolate Masterclass.

Cooking alongside another young blind woman in China, together we learned a classic chocolate Mousse during a session with Intercontinental chef, frank (https://youtu.be/wwNtojsbuuU ).

Lisa was intrigued by the talking thermometer and I was too by the practical demonstration as to how altitude makes such a difference to the boiling temperature of liquids.  Once the milk had boiled, it was cooled by adding chocolate and then eggs until the whipped cream could be folded through when the mix was at 30 degrees centigrade.  Once cooled and set, the mousse can be served with our very easy strawberries steeped in orange juice, a little sugar and a splash of optional orange liqueur. 

We had been trying to use very simple processes with a few ingredients that weren’t too expensive or strange for these two young women with virtually no kitchen experience.  And the Intercontinental team put together a parcel of other western dishes for them to take home, share and learn more flavours.

Lisa was very tiny and, although trained as a medical masseuse, is just too small to practice her skill.  Instead, she is trying to generate income through her handicrafts.  She has some limited residual vision so doesn’t use a white cane and is wildly independent.

It was a time to treasure: the two blind women had been with us at the Intercontinental for lunch and then cooking in to the early evening.  They were enthusiastic and self-confident – great examples of how education and training could equip them for life.  Alongside the Intercontinental chefs were wonderful in their support, patience and empathy.  It seemed to me that both the chefs and young women were having a completely new experience cooking together: finding that food was a force for breaking down barriers.  I tried to stand back and give them time to learn about each other’s lives.

Penny

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Living with blindness.

People have often asked me about how I can manage with no sight at all.  Here are some of my most important aids:

  1. Voice-activated.             Voice activated is all about using one’s voice to make things happen – rather than pressing a button etc.  One can do some of this through gadgets such as Amazon’s Alexa.  I have one of these and primarily use it as a radio (voice activated switching on/off and adjusting the volume), setting timers when I’m cooking, setting alarms, asking the time.  One can do more if you sign up for amazon Music etc.  There are also lights that can link with alexa so that they will go on/off/dim/change colour with voice commands.  There are also gadgets that go in to electric wall sockets in to which you plug an electrical appliance (e.g. table lamp) that can be controlled by voice via alexa.  There are some other kitchen gadgets etc that can be controlled by voice but I don’t have any (other than Alan!).
  2. Gadgets and more with voice outputs. These are my bread and butter in that I don’t have to rely on sight to read a screen etc but can hear what is going on.  Here are some of my key items:

Laptop/PC.  I use JAWS software – about £800 (and blind people don’t pay VAT for this or any other of the following).  To make this work best, one has to be a touch-typist which is very easy to become (I learned with an hour a day over a summer holiday).  However, some training to use JAWS is probably worthwhile.  Instead of using a mouse and on-screen-cursor, one uses key strokes plus the letters/numbers on the keyboard.  As one types, the IT speaks each letter/number and, when the space bar is pressed, speaks the whole word.  I can probably type faster than most sighted people, use it all the time for e-mails, writing and reading documents, running my calendar and more.

There are also some simpler screen readers available for free on-line and via PC operating systems.  Look in Control Panel and Accessibility if you are using Microsoft – there are ways of permanently enlarging text, increasing screen contrast (for those with some residual sight), plus some basic screen reading facilities.

Mobile phone.  I investigated a smart phone with pre-installed software specifically for blind people but found that it didn’t offer more than is free elsewhere as downloadable apps while many useful functions of the phone were no longer available.  But then I may be something of a Luddite.  Instead I prefer my I-phone and use the Voice Over facility (Settings, General, Accessibility) which enables me to find out what is on screen.  There are slightly different finger strokes etc when using this but these aren’t difficult to learn.  I particularly use voice with the phone: dictating replies to e-mails but the voice recognition isn’t great and I have difficulty correcting.  Hence, my replies often read rather oddly!  But it is good for quick response to friends rather than carefully phrased replies on significant matters.  The phone also has Ciri whom I can ask by voice for the time, setting alarms and more.

MP3 Player.  I have Milestones made in Switzerland.  These are small enough to clip to a bra strap so I always carry one with me.  On the Milestone you can listen to audio books, music, radio, dictate notes, set alarms, tell the time and more.  Books and music are read on the Milestone once they have been copied on to an SD card via the PC.  These are no longer available from RNIB but can be bought (perhaps £300). With a bit of on-line research.

Talking books.  I have a vast collection of unabridged talking books on cassette – mainly murder stories, crime thrillers etc – and would be very happy to pass them on.  Otherwise, there are two main libraries for talking books: RNIB and Calibre.  I still get unabridged books on CD because this has become most manageable for me but one can also obtain as downloads and in other formats.  However, neither library is very easy to access so, with RNIB, I have an Author List so that I get any books by those writers as they are released.

Talking scales and thermometers.  These are essential kitchen equipment for me and are available via RNIB.  However, the speaking voice on the scales has very poor diction so isn’t the easiest to understand if the kitchen is busy and noisy.  I wouldn’t bother with speaking jugs as too bulky and not needed if one remembers that 10 millilitres of water weighs 10 milligrams.

Breville hotpot.  Pouring boiling water from a kettle in to a cup can be pretty harzardous.  There are some liquid measures that slip over the lip of a cup and beep when the water reaches a set level (and again when you add the milk) but these are a pain.  Instead I use a “mainstream” type of kettle made, I think, by Breville.  It has a tank that is filled with cold water (not difficult).  One presses a button which results in a pre-measured amount of water being heated to boiling and then automatically dispensed in to the waiting cup/mug.  I have an old version which was excellent as one could adjust the amount of water dispensed but I’m not sure if the more recent versions have this function.  Either way, it is just a matter of making sure you have the right size mugs!  It is good being able to put the mug with instant coffee or a tea bag under the spout, press the button and walk away while it does the job.

Labelling.  I have an ID-Mate in the kitchen and another in the bedroom for clothes.  The old version is much better than the new one which is so much slower and more complicated.  They come with bar codes that can be ironed on to clothes, stuck on to food containers and more.  One presents the label to the machine, press a button to dictate what the item is, and then it will be read back each time the item is presented.  The huge benefit of the ID Mate is that it can read commercial bar codes.  This means that if it reads a bag of flour’s bar code once and you keep buying the same brand, it will read back to you the same voice label as you input for the original bag.  There are also voice labeling pens that come with their own barcode labels.  But some of these won’t go through a dishwasher or the freezer and microwave.  My favourite is the VoiLa Pen which seems to be no longer available in the UK (but in the USA).  It has the labels held within a plastic frame which makes them easy to find in the freezer and to strike with the reading pen.  One swipes the label with the pen and then dictates the item name; swipe again, and you will hear your voice reading the label.  I found some good superglue that works in extreme temperatures to stick the labels on to the lids of foodboxes.

Food boxes.  Speaking of which, I swear by the Lakeland boxes: they come in three different sizes that all stack but with the same size lid.  So no more hunting through cupboards to find the right lid.  With a voice pen, I use these all the time in freezer, microwave and dishwasher.  Keeping things neat, clean and organised is so important when one can’t see.

Microwave.  There are talking microwaves but I still prefer the rather old-fashioned versions which have dials rather than buttons and digital displays.  I’ve forgotten what each position on the timer dial means but have simply learned from constant use.  But these too are becoming harder to find.

Other kitchen appliances.  I use gas on my hob and oven as I can hear it burning, but I did get an oven with very tactile controls so that I regularly check them plus a glass pull-down top for the hob which automatically switches off the gas to the hob.  It works really well.  Both my dishwasher and washing machine have one-button-operation.  They have both been pre-set so all I have to do is throw in the washing tablet and press a button.  The Bosch fridge is great in having pull-out shelves (like drawers) but a pain in having temperature buttons that are too easy to touch and, unknowingly, change the temperature.

I’ve mentioned makes that I’ve tested – there are possibly others available that do similar jobs.  Prices will change with time – I’m writing this in February 2019.

Penny

Good taste in China.

Wong Lin is a tiny young woman with very little cooking experience.  But she was enthusiastic and fun as together we made her first Waldorf salad (https://youtu.be/5Y2aaHyKSfc).

She was amazingly confident and relaxed to attempt perhaps her first unfamiliar western dish with the Intercontinental Hotel head chef in one of Chongqing’s most prestigious establishments.  I suspect that few sighted people would have risen to the challenge with such aplomb!  She struggled at first with one potato peeler but quickly got in to her stride.

I chose this simple dish because it depends on getting the balance of the fresh ingredients right. Together we taste-tested: too sweet or sour?  Too salty or bitter?  Whatever anyone says about presentation, the latest gastronomic techniques or the exotic sources of ingredients, taste has to be at the heart of all cooking.  Often there’s a temptation to throw everything but the kitchen sink at a plate meaning that it only gets muddled in flavour.  My hero is Luis in San Francisco who was adamant when training young cooks that they should focus on just a few flavours and really make them sing.

Wong Lin had probably done very little cooking herself so I was keen that this experience was something she could do well and that depended on senses other than sight.  Peeling the “whiskers” off celery means that it has a better “mouth-feel”.  Cutting the apple and celery to a size that is comparable to the broken walnut pieces means that every mouthful can include some of each and none is too dominant.  Being restrained with the mayonnaise keeps all the fresh flavours singing through.  Together, we tasted and modified until we were happy.

And, of course, irrepressible Head Chef Jack couldn’t restrain himself from adding his professional touches to the final dish.    His care and empathy for this young blind woman was intensely touching.     For him, it was equally unusual to have a blind country woman in his kitchen but he made her very welcome.

Wong Lin is trained as a medical masseuse but is so small herself that she can only work on very young children.    She lost her sight due to a childhood accident but went on to study at the local school for blind children to qualify in massage techniques.  She and her colleagues live at the massage centre, using the patient couches as their own beds at night and have an “auntie” who cooks and assists them.  She still has some residual vision so doesn’t use a white cane and is fiercely independent.  As she had given up a whole afternoon of her time, I tried to offer her a taxi home as moving around in twilight is difficult with limited vision – but she firmly refused, especially as taxis make her a little car sick.  But, with the help of Julia from the local rotary Club translating, we did manage to persuade her to accept some money in recompense for the work time she had lost.

She is the perfect example of a blind person who is determined to make their way in the world: using every opportunity, keen for new experiences and not afraid to take risk.  There are so many other blind and disabled people in the world just like her – just give us a chance!

Penny

Pressing the flesh: rare, medium or well-done?

Two young blind masseuses spent an afternoon with the top Intercontinental chefs and me in Chongqing, China.  We were all trying to learn from each other: some basic cooking, Chinese medical massage and living with blindness.  Head chef Jack taught us to use our sense of touch to test how well a beef steak is cooked (https://youtu.be/BvIuYBQwehI).    This very simple professional tip is perfect for blind people anywhere – and anyone else too.

During our time in the city, I learned that other blind people weren’t very obvious.  Perhaps they don’t get out much or perhaps they tend not to use white canes.  Either way, my videographer Toby didn’t spot many during our stay in the world’s largest city with a population of about 37 million.  There would have been many citizens with different levels of visual impairment arising from all the conditions that are recognised world-wide: many would be age-related, others linked to past malnutrition in this country of massive economic growth.

Medical massage is a key work opportunity for young people who attend the local blind school to gain the necessary qualifications.  They then practice in a massage clinic that is also their home.  The patient couches become their beds at night and an “auntie” comes in to cook their meals.    Living and working in the same place obviously has lots of advantages but possibly less chance of learning how to cook.  My thanks to the Rotary Club of Chongqing for bringing us all together as part of their initiative to support local visually impaired people.

Like me, the blind girls probably hadn’t had much time in a professional kitchen in a prestigious hotel but we all managed to enjoy the opportunity together rather than being over-awed by the location.

The two girls quickly learned from Jack.  He’d probably also had very little experience of blind people in his kitchen but was wonderful with all three of us: patient and empathetic, caring and courteous.  I just stood back while the rapport developed between him and the blind girls: they were all completely immersed with their experience of each other.

For the beef dish, Jack showed Wan Lin a safer way of handling her knife and how to toss the pan of vegetables.  Alongside, we had Julia and food and Beverages Manager, Sam, both translating plus Toby shooting video and a small audience.  From this chaos Jack still managed to produce an excellent dish – what a professional!

And the trick with steak: the muscle at the base of your thumb becomes harder as you fold your thumb and fingers: thumb only – rare; two fingers folded- medium; three – well-done – but the video explanation is probably easier!

Next time, we use taste to refine a simple salad.

Penny

Tofu or not Tofu, that’s the question.

Vegan sausage rolls have been hitting the headlines and national news in the UK.  Not just very successful PR but an echo of my Christmas party discussions: a fellow guest had given up eating all animal products because of the environmental impact of methane, de-forestation to increase grazing land, the chemical inputs to factory farming and more.   The debate about eating less meat to save the planet is hotting up.    If you want to try a half-way house, see the tofu dish I learned in China (https://youtu.be/j4QuNQxxyi0) which cuts the amount of meat but keeps the flavour with a little beef.

Professional chef Tony showed me how to transform pale, rather tasteless chewy cubes of bean curd in to a typical Chongqing dish: Lao LAN Ma or Sichuan-Style Braised Spicy and Hot Tofu.  There was a little simmering and frying plus lots of the strong flavours so popular in the local cuisine.  The beef (so finely minced that it was nearly a paste), some “chicken powder” similar to a crumbled stock cube plus chilli and the famous local pepper made all the difference.  And Head chef Jack couldn’t resist taking charge of us both.

If we want to cut our meat consumption, there are lots to learn from the kitchens of China and other countries if we can be open-minded to alternatives that have already stood the test of time and satisfied millions of people.    And there are new ideas emerging all the time: already, scientists are trying to “grow their own meat” in the laboratory.

The key question remains: will those meat substitutes bring enough profit for the food industry?  There need to be alternatives that grab the taste buds of the mass market if whole areas of food production are going to change or even end.  We aren’t there yet but tofu has a part to play – even if you don’t have the special Chinese sauce made from fermented broad beans that added to this dish.

And all thanks to the Chongqing Rotary Club that made this visit possible – next time, we are cooking with two of the local blind women assisted by the Club.

Penny

Kitchen cupboard-love.

For years/decades, I’ve yearned for one of those pointed oval tins for raised game pies (the type with clips at either end).  Just one of those longings for a classic piece of cooking equipment that carries breaths of nostalgia and tradition.  When I had the chance, I’ve scoured antique fairs without success but my longing was finally more than satisfied this Christmas by friends Sue and Joan.  Heaven knows why these tins are so wildly expensive!

My own version of hot water pastry to make the game raised pie included: strong white bread flour added to the ordinary plain; rubbing in butter; adding lard dissolved in hot water.  A quarter of the pastry was set aside for the pie lid and the rest went in the tin.  I pressed it out and gradually raise it up the sides.    Just like trying to mould hot greasy and slithery plasticine!  It kept oozing back down the sides of the tin and gathering at the bottom –it would have been better allowing it to cool more so it didn’t sag like Nora batty tights!

Pork gave bulk to the filling:  sausage meat and mince seasoned with mustard powder and ground allspice. Pork is also important in adding a little fat to keep the game moist – in this case, partridge (skinned and bones removed) marinaded with a little white wine.

By the time I’d struggled with the pastry, rather roughly layered in the meat and topped off with the lid, I was running out of cooking time.  But, even though I had to switch the oven off 30 minutes early, leaving it in the residual heat did the trick.  I confess that one side was a bit scorched (too near the gas), I failed to do the egg glaze and the jellied stock added later didn’t reach all the parts required or set firmly enough – it sounds like a series of disasters.  But the pastry was the best I’ve ever made and the filling was deliciously moist.  Definitely an experiment to be repeated in rather slower time to do more justice to that excellent tin.

Meanwhile, if you are looking for another classic pork dish, look no further than this week’s video (https://youtu.be/s9ssUcVIIto) which features the first of three versions of sweet and sour spare ribs from my time in Chongqing in China.  This was the recipe from the professional chef with two more homely versions to come.

Penny

First taste of China

Flying in to Chongqing was an adventure in itself: first I’d felt very jet-setter by briefly stopping in Helsinki and then flying over the North Pole; landing in the huge and ultra-modern city airport.  A limousine whisked us off to the Intercontinental Hotel: huge and impressive with a great welcome from the staff and Rotary contacts.  Toby was thrilled by the view over the city from our rooms on the 29th floor while I was more entranced by being able to open the windows and hear the noise of busy life so far below.  Its surprising how well sound travels upwards and meant that I had a real sense of the city’s life and pace – night and day.

Jet-lag meant that the next 36 hours are still a blur of welcome lunches and dinners – and somehow I managed to give a presentation to our Rotary Club sponsors.  Meeting masses of new people is always a challenge when you can’t see: no visual clues so it’s all a matter of recognising different voices and being able to tie each to a name.  Not easy when there are lots of them all talking at once in different languages – so you’ll understand if I make mistakes.  And, adding to the confusion, most of the local people I met have adopted English names to overcome our poor pronunciation of their proper Chinese names.

Sam, the Food and Beverages Manager at the hotel had done just this – and he is a very memorable character for his energetic enthusiasm and tireless good humour in the face of coping with this strange blind woman.  Not only was he the prime mover in arranging all the cooking sessions there but he madly took me shopping too – I’ll save that for another day and stick with the cooking now.

Chef Dillon comes from a family of professional cooks – both his father and brother are in the industry.  His Cantonese style is more fragrant and subtle than the hot and spicy flavours usually associated with Chongqing cuisine.  He taught me his Sichuan-style Kung Pao chicken https://youtu.be/Sruq3G5VymE

One of my most precious gifts from the visit is the bottle of his special mix of vinegar, sugar and soy sauce used in the recipe – and which is so typical of Chinese cuisine.     That bottle has travelled the world, been mistaken for shower gel and is, at last, safely ensconced in my own kitchen ready to re-create Dillon’s magical flavours.

Special thanks go to Sharon, the General Manager of the Intercontinental, and all her team plus Julia, the local architect from the Rotary Club who dedicated a whole week of her life as my translator for the visit.  She was indomitable amidst the sometimes chaotic kitchen dramas I created.

Next week, my first attempt at sweet and sour pork – and there are two more versions to come as different cooks gave their own interpretations of this classic delicious dish.

Penny