Precision cooking

Roger is a gentleman of some maturity dressed in his stripey apron and with his blackboard of the cooking timings.Measuring pieces of spaghetti to the nearest half centimetre and asparagus by the inch plus using a stopwatch to time the cooking isn’t my usual style but neighbour Roger proved that more precision reaps benefits.

His chalkboard checklist for every step and timing was the crucial kitchen gadget for creating his truly excellent pasta dish – and adapted from the BBC Good Food magazine’s “101 Simple Suppers”.  Such a logical approach certainly works for anyone who isn’t confident about cooking – although I’d need to find a different way of pre-planning each step and timing.  I’ll just have to revert to my old touch, smell and taste ways and hope for the best. I confess that, as a usually rather slapdash cook, I could barely stop laughing at this way of cooking but there’s no doubt that it works: a great dish in exactly the time the recipe stipulates.  I’ll have to mend my ways.roger’s slate board with his cooking times. Roger and Penny dressed in their stripey aprons in the kitchen ready to start the dish.

You can watch us on YouTube or download the recipe here

Penny

 Roger supervising the cooking of strips of bacon in the large frying pan

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Truly out of my comfort zone!

Cook’s nightmare? Long hours, little sleep or food, endlessly damp from the torrential rain, dog and cat underfoot, no hot water and, for hours, no water at all, biting ants and other flying insects, chaotic kitchen, unfamiliar equipment,  strange ingredients and stranger combinations (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKFHEgyP9-0).  And, for this particular blind cook, trip hazards galore plus a particularly unpleasant muddy puddle!

I’d love to say that I took all of this in my stride and turned out a stream of fabulous food.  But the tomato and avocado crumble was just boring and even my second attempt at meringues barely passed muster (the sugar and damp, I think).

Yet Noam and I somehow managed to turn out two evenings of seven course dishes for guests at his Tamarindo restaurant on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.  The first day was a challenge: starting soon after 0800 and not getting back to the hotel until nearly 2300 because the guests were late starting due to the weather and even later finishing.  We were trying to combine the ideas of some classic British dishes and techniques with some completely different ingredients.  So while the tartar sauce with the beer-battered fish included the usual capers, we also threw in slithers of watermelon skin pickled in beer and vinegar!   My mini-Victoria sponges were flavoured with chilli and coriander and topped with a tamarind and pineapple sauce – a million miles from lemon drizzle cake.  We turned the ever-popular Coronation chicken in to a cold prawn curry with mango or papaya, served on top of double-fried plantain slices to give the crunch of poppadum’s.  And the little lemon meringue tarts tasted great when made with lemon mandarinos but the meringue was just too flabby.

This week of real culinary adventure should have ended with a great cook-in with the Costa Rican organisation of blind people   (Patronato Nacional De Ciegos)but the rainy season put paid to that.  I’d got lots of support and enthusiasm from them at the start of the week and we were all set to work together at one of the best cookery schools in the capital, San Jose.  But the hair-raising six hour drive from Tamarindo gave us a sense of just how devastating the rainy season can be: roads awash and flooded, rivers breaking their banks, trees uprooted and general chaos and devastation.  The Government has been warning people to stay at home so the decision to abandon our plan was inevitable.

So not a nightmare but a true adventure, full of challenge and fresh ideas  that I hope will inspire and stimulate my thinking about food for years to come.

I’ll write more about the menu, our dishes and the ingredients in the coming months –all thanks to Noam and his friend, Victor, who kept us safe over hundreds of miles of treacherous roads

Please Like, Comment and Subscribe to my YouTube channel to keep up with the next wild adventure.

Penny

Baking Blind with a Navy theme.

I was last in Norfolk, Virginia in the USA nearly 40 years ago: a young and ambitious officer in the Women’s Royal Naval Service pretending to know something about NATO intelligence and trying not to look completely foolish at an international naval conference.    I look back at all that naivete and laugh!

This autumn, I’ll be passing through en route to Virginia Beach to meet Jo, another former WRNS officer.  We did officer training together at the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth and then she took over from me in the NATO Intelligence job in Naples.  And we haven’t been in contact since – until the WRNS centenary this year and Baking Blind came along.

It is thanks to Jo that I’ll have nearly a week of cooking opportunities with a bevy of home-cooks including another former Wren.  I’ve been researching the area and local produce and am hugely disappointed to miss the season for their wonderful local peaches.  It would have been good to try preserving them, make peach pies and cobblers and even try them with savoury dishes.  It is just difficult to get comparable fruit here in rather chillier England.

I’ll be flying from San Jose in Costa Rica via Atlanta to Norfolk and then returning to the UK via Chicago – so my sense of these famous cities are going to be limited to the airports and the helpfulness of their passenger assistance teams.  But, I’ll be able to name-drop and give the impression that I’m well-travelled in the United States – which takes me back to blagging my way through that intelligence conference all those years ago!

And all of this is thanks to James Holman, that Royal Navy officer who was blinded while serving like me but went on to travel the world about 200 years ago.  Without his inspiration, San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired wouldn’t have created the Holman prize and I would still be back in the chilly UK rather than pursuing my Baking Blind adventure across six continents.

You can keep track of my trip on YouTube.

Penny

Letter from America.

Am I going to survive this adventure?  So far, it has been pretty touch and go with about 12 hours of activities every day, still not sleeping much due to the time differences and trying to keep up with all the information and new experiences (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQXRXfOINO8).  But hasn’t it been fun and exciting meeting the Holman prize co-winners Ojok and Ahmet plus all the LightHouse team!  A wild round of meetings, breakfasts, lunches, briefings, trips, video shoots, interviews, catching up on the washing, technical IT training and lots more.

Drama of the first week was Ojok struggling to make his trip from Uganda after passport difficulties but he finally got here four days later and still was an absolute whizz when we visited one of the local bee farms.  He brought samples of his own honey which was completely different: smokey and spicey.

We’ve had lots of San Francisco food and the most odd was being offered a salad of “massaged kale”.  I had visions of Swedish-style cooks giving the reluctant leaves a good rub down in the kitchens so it was a bit disillusioning to hear that all they do is toss the kale in to brine.  But massaging is all the rage and a bit more authentic elsewhere: scrunching up the kale once it has been dressed with oil and vinegar to soften up the stems etc.

I’ve already posted the honey cake recipe I made while Ahmet and Ojok were sailing in the San Francisco Bay – I get too seasick to have joined them.  And there are lots more recipes to come from all the restaurants where I’ve been cooking once we have managed to edit the videos: peach galettes from One Market, seagrass cake and passion fruit mousse from China Live, barbecued shrimp and grits plus fried chicken and waffles from the Brown Sugar Kitchen, a bounty of different sourdough focaccia breads from the Cheeseboard Collective – and you wonder why I don’t sleep much!

My top drama of the week was escaping from a truly awful hotel where I spent the weekend solo and where they didn’t have the slightest idea about disability or accessibility.  I was rescued by Ben (another blind sailor) and Blanche who’d I’d met last Friday.  They welcomed Toby and I in to their Oakland home and have given us a real taste of wonderful, heart-warming American hospitality.   In a city of fast-action, hipster development and energy, there’s still the great friendship and kindness that has given this trip an outstanding start.

Finally, there is still that difference in language (the old potato and tomato “let’s call the whole thing off” song).  I was really taken aback to be called “bad arse” – not quite the done thing in the UK to have one’s posterior the subject of adverse comment – but it seems to be rather more positive here:   tough, competent and relentless!

Thank you to the LightHouse for all of these fabulous images and the experience itself!

 

Penny

Blind cook and pot of honey is recipe for stickiness everywhere

One of the joys of my time at the LightHouse for the Blind (who kindly provided these images) in San Francisco was cooking with Sydney.  She is their instructor chef who herself has very limited vision.  And she enthusiastically allowed me in to her immaculate training kitchen to create havoc and make the honey cake I’d learned from MasterChef champion, Steven Edwards.

By the end of the morning, I was sticky up to my elbows as was the working surface, sink taps, spoons, bowls and virtually everything down my side of the kitchen.  I had to completely change my clothes afterwards.

And the cake was very much touch and go.  Weighing the dry ingredients was easy but, even between us, achieving 200g of egg whites was a challenge.  I’m not sure if the American hens are fed on something different but their shells didn’t really crack but rather collapsed inwards.  Once opened, we were trying to drop the egg in to a separator that was far too small and that wobbled precariously on the edge of a bowl.  And then, of course, there was the honey. The electric mixer made short work of whizzing together the egg whites and dry ingredients

It took two of us huddled over the stove listening to the butter bubbling and then the smell changing to decide that it had browned.

Even once we had the cake batter mixed, we were very dubious as it seemed far too liquid so extra spoonsful of flour and ground almonds were whisked in.  As to the baking tin, there was nothing like Steven’s deep square tin so we compromised with one of those round ones with a hole in the middle to make a ring cake.  This meant that there was less surface to cook which resulted in nearly double the time in the oven.

All of this was to be dessert for a lunch for 12 and, at one stage, it was looking pretty hopeless.  I was wondering how I could make something nearly presentable with a loaf and the rest of the honey.

A cocktail stick is still the best way of testing If a cake is done - and here it came out clean after 40 minutes in the oven.Nail-biting minutes later the cake emerged: lightly golden, springy and coming away from the sides of the tin.  It flopped out perfectly and, after multiple prods with a cocktail stick, it was anointed with the honey and orange juice syrup (the Americans call this a “poke” cake for obvious reasons).  Meanwhile, I’d toasted some walnut pieces and then candied them in yet more honey so that they made a crisp and sticky topping.

Steven’s wonderful winning recipe was even more adulterated as I’d added orange zest to the batter and on the base of the baking tin – he is probably cringing!Penny stirring the small pan of honey and orange juice to make the syrup to pour over the cake.

But it all worked surprisingly well: light and full of flavour without being too sweet – it disappeared very fast.

Another time, I’ll share Sydney’s Marbella chicken – with prunes, olives and much more.  She certainly deserved one of the Baking Blind apron medals for all her patience and the clearing-up!

PennyThe ring shaped cake is golden brown on the white plate, topped with shiny and sticky walnut pieces.

Cooking in Costa Rica.

Major long-haul: departing San Francisco one day to fly up to Los Angeles, change planes and an overnight flight down to San Jose ( capital of Costa Rica) to arrive early the following morning.  I’m not quite sure what videographer, Toby, and I will do for the next few hours before I have a speaking gig with some local disability organisations and media.  I thought I might explore how good self-employment can be for disabled people using my own experience of running a business for over 17 years  (www.disabilitydynamics.co.uk) with the last seven helping others to do the same through the Work for Yourself projects.  And then before there’s a chance of shower and sleep, we have a five hour drive across the country to Tamarindo on the Pacific coast.

Over the following days, I’ll be developing some dishes with local restaurateur, Noam and trying to get a sense of the wonderful wildlife and beaches.  Perhaps even a swim in the sea?

Noam and I are then returning to San Jose to give a cookery demonstration to local blind people.  Because we aren’t sure what facilities might be available, we will go ready to be flexible and inventive.  I feel rather presumptuous trying to show people how to get the best from their local produce when they probably know very well already – but perhaps I can offer an English spin?    And some will have ideas to share too.

Noam is delighted that my adventure is helping him to work more closely with not-for-profit organisations – and he has lots of skills to share with them.  I’m hoping that, between all of us, we can generate more promotion and public interest to get stronger support for the organisations helping blind people.

With luck, we’ll have a final day to get a better sense of the country, do the washing and even sleep before jetting back to the USA.

San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired selected me as one of the three international blind winners of the Holman prize which has made all of this possible.  And there was a feature all about us in the San Francisco Chronicle!

Keep up with my travels at on YouTube.

Penny

MasterChef cookery Day

You can watch me on YouTube or download the recipe here

Rather stupendous cooking sessions with Steve Edwards, winner of the BBC’s 2013 MasterChef competition who now runs his new restaurant “Etch” near Brighton. At the magnificent Lainston House hotel.  The demonstrations and our individual cooking stations were top quality, with excellent behind-the scenes support to keep us constantly cleaned down and fully stocked with the ingredients needed.  Best of all from my perspective was the personal support of Sylvain, the Cookery School Manager, who was completely unperturbed by having a blind cook in their midst and made sure that I was completely included and every step was wholly accessible.

In reality, I got the best deal of the day through Sylvan’s own massive experience as the sous chef at the hotel.  All the others on the one-day course were equally inclusive and supportive so it was a great experience all round.

Steve shared some of his own recipes: from Marmite bread to accompany the scallops and roast cucumber starter through very straightforward Ballantine of guinea fowl (simply wrap in prosciutto and roll up with cling-film to poach) to the honey cake he is confident won him the Masterchef prize.  He’d specially designed every element of the menu so that the dishes are easy to make at home and kindly allowed us to video throughout the day and share his recipes.

What an exceptional day – it was a gift from the team that helps me here.

 

Penny