Recipes this month were contributed by staff of the Colorado Center for the Blind, BLIND Inc., and the Louisiana Center for the Blind.
These recipes were chosen by the home management staff from each center. We understand that sometimes cooking for a crowd can be somewhat expensive. However, here we have a few recipes that you can make for the cost of a single NFB banquet ticket plus registration. These are perfect for any gathering or banquet night NFB party. It’s time to choose your own banquet adventure! Choose a salad, an entrée, a side, and a dessert to create your own NFB banquet at home.
by the Louisiana Center for the Blind staff
For the salad:
2 bunches broccoli florets, washed and cut into small pieces
10 strips crisp bacon, crumbled
1/2 cup onions, diced
2/3 cup raisins
1/2 cup sunflower seeds
For the dressing:
1 cup Miracle Whip
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Method: Mix together in a large bowl, two bunches broccoli florets, washed and cut into small pieces; ten strips crumbled crisp bacon; 1/2 cup diced onions; 2/3 cup raisins; and 1/2 cup sunflower seeds. In a separate bowl, mix together 1 cup Miracle Whip, 1/3 cup sugar, and two tablespoons balsamic vinegar to make dressing. Add as much dressing to salad as desired and lightly toss.
by the BLIND, Inc. kitchen
The first item in any proper NFB banquet is the salad. Give the classic banquet salad an upgrade with this summer classic, Italian caprese. Here we used cherry tomatoes, but feel free to use whatever tomatoes you like. Buying in-season produce is often a good way to stretch those dollars. This recipe serves eight to ten.
3 containers cherry tomatoes washed and cut in half (roughly 3 pounds)
2 pounds regular low moisture or fresh mozzarella (extra points if you make your own)
About 40 basil leaves (sliced thinly)
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil and balsamic vinegar (optional)
Method: Wash and cut your cherry tomatoes in half. If using a larger tomato variety, cut into bite-sized pieces. Cut your low-moisture mozzarella into half-inch cubes. To make sure things are cut evenly, keep a reference piece next to you. Also, sticking the cheese in the freezer for ten minutes before cutting will firm up the cheese, making it easier to slice. If using fresh mozzarella, just tear it up into bite-sized pieces using your hands. Add to a large salad bowl with the tomatoes. Thinly slice your basil leaves. An easy way to do this is to pile a few leaves on top of each other and use a very sharp knife. Sprinkle the basil over the salad. Toss and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with olive oil and balsamic vinegar at the table, if using.
Chips and Salsa
by the Colorado Center for the Blind
We love this recipe as a fun and delicious alternative to a salad. It is best enjoyed with friends!
4 cloves garlic
1 jalapeño, seeded
4 roma tomatoes, halved and seeded
Small handful cilantro
Splash lime juice
Heaping 1/4 teaspoon salt
1 bag corn tortilla chips
Method: In a food processor mince garlic, then add jalapeño to ensure it’s well minced. Add cilantro, then onion, and pulse in order to keep chunky. Last, add tomatoes, lime, and salt; pulse until the desired consistency. Serve with chips. Quick tip: This recipe is even more delicious if you take the time to roast the tomatoes and peppers before blending.
Tacos Carne Asada
by the Colorado Center for the Blind
This recipe was chosen by the staff at the Colorado Center for the Blind. We love to share the kinds of recipes we might prepare with our students. Grilling on the patio is one of our favorite things to do in the summer; it’s a great way to bring everyone together. After inviting friends over one day and preparing this recipe, one of our instructors loved it so much he knew it had to be included as a banquet option. It’s a great recipe to share with your friends and enjoy while spending time outside in the summer.
For the tacos:
2 pounds flank or skirt steak, trimmed of excess fat
Olive oil, for coating the grill
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
16 (7-inch) corn tortillas
Shredded romaine or iceberg lettuce, for serving
Chopped white onion, for serving
Shredded Jack cheese, for serving
2 limes, cut in wedges for serving
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 jalapeño, minced
1 large handful fresh cilantro leaves, finely chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 limes, juiced
1 orange, juiced
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
Pico de Gallo:
4 vine-ripe tomatoes, chopped
1/2 medium red onion, chopped
2 green onions, white and green parts, sliced
1 serrano chile, minced
1 handful fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 lime, juiced
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Method: For the mojo: In a mortar and pestle or bowl, mash together the garlic, jalapeño, cilantro, salt, and pepper to make a paste. Put the paste in a glass jar or plastic container. Add the lime juice, orange juice, vinegar, and oil. Shake it up really well to combine. Use as a marinade for chicken or beef or as a table condiment. Yield: approximately 1-1/4 cups.
For the Tacos: Lay the flank steak in a large baking dish and pour the mojo over it. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for one hour or up to eight hours, so the flavors can sink into the meat. Don't marinate the steak for more than eight hours though, or the fibers break down too much, and the meat gets mushy. Preheat an outdoor grill or a ridged grill pan over medium-high flame (you can also use a broiler). Brush the grates with a little oil to prevent the meat from sticking. Pull the steak out of the mojo marinade and season the steak on both sides with salt and pepper. Grill (or broil) the steak for seven to ten minutes per side, turning once, until medium-rare. Remove the steak to a cutting board and let it rest for five minutes to allow the juices to settle. Thinly slice the steak across the grain on a diagonal. Warm the tortillas for thirty seconds on each side in a dry skillet or on the grill, until toasty and pliable. To make the tacos, stack up two of the warm tortillas, lay about four ounces of beef down the center, and sprinkle with some lettuce, onion, and cheese. Top each taco with a spoonful of the pico de gallo salsa and garnish with lime wedges. Repeat with the remaining tortillas.
For the Pico de Gallo: In a mixing bowl, combine all ingredients together. Toss thoroughly. Let it sit for fifteen minutes to allow the flavors to marry. Yield: 2 cups.
Note: To make this dish vegetarian, substitute the carne asada with portobello mushrooms and proceed with the recipe as listed above.
Pollo a la Plancha (Chicken on the Griddle)
by the BLIND Inc. staff
We cannot have an NFB banquet without chicken. We drew inspiration from the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, the home state of BLIND Inc.’s home management instructor. In this recipe, we marinade chicken cutlets in a flavorful marinade full of citrus and Caribbean seasonings. However, if you want to use boneless chicken thighs, pork chops, steak medallions, or large portabella mushrooms for a vegan alternative, by all means do it. This recipe is easily adaptable. The best part is that this recipe can easily be scaled up or down, and it is super easy to make. You don’t even need a griddle. A heavy cast iron or stainless steel pan will do just fine. Feel free to serve this with some of our suggested side dishes: rice and beans, roasted sweet or regular potatoes, fried sweet plantains, or any side dish of your choosing. It serves eight to ten. Recipe adapted from Serious Eats[.com].
8 medium cloves garlic, pealed
1/2 cup of freshly squeezed orange juice, from two large oranges (Sorry, carton orange juice will not do for this.)
1/2 cup of freshly squeezed lime juice, from about four limes
The zest of one of the oranges and two of the limes
1 teaspoon of cumin (extra points if it is freshly ground)
1 teaspoon of dried oregano
3 large onions cut into thick slices
20 chicken cutlets (about 4 ounces each) or 10 boneless skinless chicken breasts cut in half and pounded thinly with a meat mallet
1 teaspoon of ground black pepper
Salt to taste
Oil for cooking
Method: For the marinade: Using a blender or food processor, purée garlic, orange juice, lime juice, zest, cumin, oregano, black pepper, and two teaspoons kosher salt. If you don’t have a blender or food processor, mince your garlic and add to a large bowl. Add the rest of the ingredients to the bowl, and mix to combine. Let marinade sit in the fridge for one hour to let the flavors meld. After an hour, remove from the fridge, and proceed with the recipe. Put chicken in a gallon-size plastic storage bag, or a glass baking dish. Pour the marinade over the chicken, and let sit for thirty minutes. Take the chicken out of the marinade and pat dry. In a large skillet or griddle placed on medium high—cooking in batches to avoid crowding the pan—cook chicken on each side for three to five minutes or until it is cooked through and golden brown. If cooking in batches, put cooked chicken in a very low oven to keep warm.
In the same pan you cooked the chicken, cook onion slices over medium heat for seven to ten minutes or until onions have softened and sweetened a little bit. Add a splash of water if onions start to burn. On each plate, place two cutlets and top with onions. Serve with your side dish of choice.
Buttermilk-Marinated Roast Chicken
by an LCB Instructor
This recipe comes from the book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat. I wanted to include this recipe not only because roasted chicken is delicious, but also as a tribute to Samin’s book, which has been enormously influential for me personally as a home cook and home management teacher. In her book, she does an incredible job breaking down the elements involved in good cooking, making great food seem both more beautiful and more accessible. I strongly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in improving his/her skills in the kitchen, both beginner and expert alike. Regarding this recipe, Samin writes: “The buttermilk and salt work like a brine, tenderizing the meat on multiple levels: the water it contains increases moisture, and the salt and acid it contains disables proteins, preventing them from squeezing liquid from the meat as the bird cooks. As an added bonus, the sugars in the buttermilk will caramelize, contributing to an exquisitely browned skin.”
One whole chicken (3-1/ 2 to 4 pounds)
2 cups buttermilk
Method: The day before you want to cook the chicken, remove the wingtips by cutting through the first wing joint with poultry shears or a sharp knife. Reserve for stock. Season the chicken generously with salt and let it sit for thirty minutes. Stir two tablespoons of kosher salt or four teaspoons fine sea salt into the buttermilk to dissolve. Place the chicken in a gallon-sized re-sealable plastic bag and pour in the buttermilk. If the chicken won't fit in a gallon-sized bag, double up two plastic produce bags to prevent leakage, and tie the bag with a piece of twine. Seal it, squish the buttermilk all around the chicken, place on a rimmed plate, and refrigerate. If you're so inclined, over the next twenty-four hours you can turn the bag so every part of the chicken gets marinated, but that's not essential. Pull the chicken from the fridge an hour before you plan to cook it. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit, with a rack set in the center position.
Remove the chicken from the plastic bag and scrape off as much buttermilk as you can without being obsessive. Tightly tie together the legs of the chicken with a piece of butcher's twine. Place the chicken in a ten-inch cast iron skillet or shallow roasting pan. Slide the pan all the way to the back of the oven on the center rack. Rotate the pan so that the legs are pointing toward the rear left corner and the breast is pointing toward the center of the oven (the back corners tend to be the hottest spots in the oven, so this orientation protects the breast from overcooking before the legs are done). Pretty quickly you should hear the chicken sizzling. After about twenty minutes, when the chicken starts to brown, reduce the heat to 400 degrees and continue roasting for ten minutes and then move the pan so the legs are facing the back right corner of the oven.
Continue cooking for another thirty minutes or so, until the chicken is brown all over and the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees. When the chicken is done, remove it to a platter and let it rest for ten minutes before carving and serving. Serves four.
Gluten-Free Panzanella Salad
This recipe was chosen by the Louisiana Center for the Blind. Here is what one of its instructors had to say: I included this recipe because I think it goes very well with the roasted chicken entrée. But also, if the grocery store shelves are any indication, many of us are baking homemade bread at home, and Panzanella is a great way to use up day-old leftover bread. Panzanella is a great side dish because it plays the role of starch, salad, and sauce.
Though I am not always a huge fan of gluten-free bread on its own, it actually works very well in this recipe if you or your guests need gluten-free items. However, if you can’t get enough gluten, this recipe is equally delicious with your typical, full-gluteny French bread.
3 tablespoons good olive oil
1 loaf gluten-free French bread, cut into 1-inch cubes (6 cups)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 large ripe tomatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 hothouse cucumber, unpeeled, seeded, and sliced 1/2-inch thick
1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 yellow bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes
1/2 red onion, cut in 1/2 and thinly sliced
20 large basil leaves, coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons capers, drained
For the vinaigrette:
1 teaspoon finely minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons Champagne vinegar
1/2 cup good olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Method: Heat the oil in a large sauté pan. Add the bread and salt; cook over low to medium heat, tossing frequently, for ten minutes or until nicely browned. Add more oil as needed. For the vinaigrette, whisk all the ingredients together until well blended. In a large bowl, mix the tomatoes, cucumber, red pepper, yellow pepper, red onion, basil, and capers. Add the bread cubes and toss with the vinaigrette. Season liberally with salt and pepper. Serve, or allow the salad to sit for about half an hour for the flavors to blend. Yield: 12 servings
Mexican Street Corn Salad
by the Colorado Center for the Blind
Here’s what one of our instructors had to say about this recipe: I love this recipe as a side dish for Mexican meals as it is very different from the traditional sides you usually get. It is a twist on a classic Mexican snack, Elote, which is commonly sold on the streets and at festivals in Mexico. It is creamy, spicy, and full of flavor.
4 cups of corn kernels (about 5 ears)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
1/2 red onion, diced
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1 jalapeño, minced
1 avocado, chopped
4 tablespoons lime juice (about 2 limes)
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sour cream
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/2 cup crumbled cotija or parmesan cheese
Method: Heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the corn and stir it around for about three to five minutes or until it starts to char, which is the reason for the high heat. Transfer the corn to a large bowl and allow to cool for a few minutes. Add remaining ingredients to the corn and mix well. Adjust lime juice and salt as necessary.
by the BLIND, Inc. kitchen
This recipe was chosen by the instructors at BLIND, Inc. While you could easily serve our main dish with any side dish of your choice, this rice pilaf makes for a delicious option, and it tastes like it was hard to make.
2-1/2 cups long grain white rice
2 teaspoons of extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup chopped onion (roughly 1 medium onion)
1/2 cup chopped celery (optional)
1 bay leaf
4 cups of warmed unsalted or low sodium stock (chicken or vegetable); check rice package instructions for exact quantity. To check the package, you can use something like KNFB Reader or Seeing AI.
Salt and ground pepper to taste
1/8 teaspoon cayenne (optional)
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley (about half a bunch)
Method: Heat stock on the stovetop using a saucepan or in the microwave using a heatproof bowl. While the stock is heating, heat a large skillet on medium-high heat. Add the olive oil and coat the bottom of the pan. When the oil is hot, add the uncooked rice and brown the rice, stirring occasionally, for a couple of minutes. You know the rice is brown when it smells a little bit like popcorn. When the rice has browned, add the onions, celery (if using), and cook a few minutes longer until the onions begin to soften. Add warmed stock, salt, pepper, cayenne (if using), and the single bay leaf. Cover tightly with a lid and bring to a boil. Once liquid starts to boil, bring the heat down to your stove’s lowest setting and simmer for twenty to twenty-five minutes, or the time suggested on the rice package. For the love of rice, do not remove the lid. Once time has elapsed, turn off the heat and leave on top of the stove, covered, for an additional ten minutes. Take off the lid, fluff using a fork and stir in parsley. At this point you can add additional things such as lime or orange zest, golden raisins, green peas, chopped nuts, or anything else that strikes your fancy.
Texas Sheet Cake
by BLIND, Inc. staff
While we all wish we were in Texas, our current situation makes our usual family reunion a bit difficult. Instead, we decided to bring a cake the size of Texas into your kitchen. Imagine having this giant cake baked in a cookie sheet as the centerpiece of your home banquet table. If you don’t have a cookie sheet, you could use a regular casserole dish, but the cake might take a few extra minutes to finish cooking. This cake is sure to impress your guests. Just make sure that President Riccobono gets a slice before the banquet speech! Recipe adapted from All Recipes[.com].
For the cake:
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups white sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
1/2 cup sour cream
1 cup butter
1 cup water
5 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
For the icing:
6 tablespoons milk
5 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup butter
4 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)
Method: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a cookie sheet (also known as a half sheet pan). Alternatively, grease a nine-by-thirteen casserole dish. Combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. Beat in the sour cream and eggs into the flour mixture. Set aside. Melt the butter on low in a saucepan, add the water, and five tablespoons cocoa. Bring mixture to a boil, then remove from heat. Allow to cool slightly for about five minutes. Mix chocolate mixture into the flour-egg mixture until blended. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake in the preheated oven for fifteen to twenty minutes, or until a toothpick or a butter knife inserted into the center comes out clean.
For the icing: In a large saucepan, combine the milk, five tablespoons cocoa and 1/2 cup butter. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat. Stir in the confectioner’s sugar and vanilla, then fold in the nuts, mixing until blended. Spread frosting over warm cake. Let entire cake cool for fifteen to twenty minutes before slicing. Enjoy by itself, or with some homemade banquet coffee.
Strawberry Panna Cotta
by LCB Instructors
Part of the fun of a great dinner party is the alchemy of taking a handful of basic ingredients, using a few simple techniques and flourishes, and turning it into something that seems special and fancy, but is really pretty easy. Panna Cotta is one of these types of recipes. It’s delicious, creamy, and delicate, relatively easy to make, and requires just a couple ingredients. It is also naturally gluten-free and can be made with little or no added sugar if preferred. And while ramekins can help present this dessert in a way that seems fancier, they are not required. You can serve this in any small bowl or glass, as long as you do not unmold the panna cotta before serving.
1 pound fresh strawberries
1/2 cup whole milk
1-1/2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin powder (1 envelope)
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1-1/2 cups heavy cream
Method: Purée the strawberries until very smooth. Push the purée through a fine mesh sieve to remove the seeds and set aside. Place six, four-ounce ramekins on a baking sheet and set aside. Add the milk to a medium saucepan. Sprinkle the gelatin evenly over the surface and let stand for ten minutes. Add the salt, sugar, and puréed strawberries to the gelatin mixture. Heat over high heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture reaches 135 degrees or until just beginning to steam. This should take about two minutes. While stirring constantly, add in the vanilla and heavy cream. Transfer the mixture to a medium bowl set over ice. Stir frequently until the mixture cools to 50 degrees, about ten minutes. Strain the mixture into a large measuring cup or pitcher and distribute evenly among the ramekins. Cover the baking sheet with plastic wrap, making sure not to disturb the surface of the cream. Refrigerate for at least four hours. Unmold from ramekins and serve immediately.
Note 1: To easily unmold panna cotta, pour one cup of boiling water into a small bowl. Dip the ramekin into the water for three seconds. Run a knife around the edges of the ramekin and invert onto serving plates.
Note 2: Panna cotta can also be served without unmolding. Make ahead tip: Panna cotta will keep for up to three days covered with plastic wrap and stored in the refrigerator. Yield: 6 Servings
Mexican Chocolate Cake
This recipe was chosen by the staff at the Colorado Center for the Blind. It is great for sharing with friends and family and would make the perfect ending to your banquet.
For the cake:
3/4 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup walnuts
2-1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups sifted flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
For the frosting:
1 6-ounce package semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup sour cream (8 ounces)
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Method: Grease a ten-inch tube pan. In a blender, grate the chocolate chips and walnuts. In a large bowl, beat the eggs. Add sugar, brown sugar, and butter; beat well. Fold in the chocolate mixture and add cinnamon, buttermilk, and vanilla. Gently fold in flour, baking powder, soda, and salt until no dry ingredients are visible. Pour in to prepared pan and bake at 350 degrees for forty-five to sixty minutes. Cool in pan for five minutes. Turn out of the pan to cool completely. Split horizontally into three layers. Spread with chocolate frosting.
For the frosting: Melt chocolate chips. If melting on the stove, pour a few inches of water into a pot and fit a heat-proof bowl over the pot. Heat the water to a simmer, and add the chocolate to the bowl, stirring gently to melt. If melting in the microwave add the chocolate to a microwave safe bowl. Heat on high for thirty seconds and stir. Repeat in ten- to fifteen-second increments until the chocolate is melted. Stir sour cream and cinnamon into the chocolate. Spread on cake. 12-14 Servings.
Nine Nonvisual Cooking Techniques You Can Use in the Kitchen
by Cammie Schuttler, Home Management Instructor, LCB
I am delighted to be a part of the team to bring the 2020 NFB Banquet into your home. Being a part of the NFB did not let me settle in life. The NFB showed me I could be more, I could do more, and I needed to push myself. Receiving blindness skills training at LCB gave me the confidence and the skills I needed to be able to accomplish any goal. Finally, teaching at LCB continuously challenges me to grow and be all that I can be. This is why I wanted to share some cooking techniques I learned during my time in training and since then. So this year we can all be the chefs for banquet and not let blindness hold us back. The following are nine nonvisual cooking techniques that you can utilize with the recipes we have provided.
Five Cues to Know if Your Food is Done
by Conrad Austen, Home Management Instructor, LCB
When I am working with a student who has limited experience cooking as a blind person, one of the major questions that comes up is how to know when your food is done. After all, so many of the indicators that are listed in recipes are visual. Think of the number of times you’ve seen written, “bake the cookies until golden brown,” or “the edges of the pancakes should start to bubble,” or “the steak should be slightly pink in the center.” However, all these things can be determined using nonvisual cues. Though there are hundreds of nonvisual techniques that one can use in the kitchen, I would say that most of the cues regarding checking for doneness fall into one of five categories. These categories are touch, taste, timing, sound, and smell.
For many of us who are blind, we have had the experience of being told to avoid the kitchen because of the fear that we might “touch.” Namely, that we might touch something that is hot, or something that is sharp, or something that will make a mess. However, for the blind cook, the sense of touch is an incredibly powerful tool when it comes to gathering information in the kitchen, and we shouldn’t be afraid to use it.
Have you ever touched your food while it is still cooking in your skillet? If not, you might be surprised to realize that, while the pan itself is quite hot, a good amount of the time the food itself is actually not too hot to touch. For instance, if you are cooking scrambled eggs over medium-low heat, you can gently touch the top of the eggs to check how they are cooking. Or, when pan-frying a burger or chicken over medium heat, you can gently touch the top of the meat after flipping to see if you have gotten that ideal texture on the surface. You can also check the firmness to determine how much longer it will need to cook.
There are certainly times you should not touch your food directly with your finger. For instance, anything liquid, oily, or uncooked batter (like pancakes before they’ve been flipped) will transfer a lot of heat and could burn you, even when cooking over medium or medium-low heat. However, in these cases, the sense of touch is still just as useful. You will simply want to use some sort of utensil (my favorite is a basic metal dinner fork) to touch your food instead of touching it directly with your hand.
Think of this as your kitchen cane. Just as your cane will give you information about the location and texture of things without touching them directly, your kitchen cane (a utensil) will let you know where things are in your pan, as well as their texture and firmness. And just like with your cane, metal tends to transfer vibrations more easily, so a metal utensil will give you a better sense of touch, which will give you more information about what is going on with the food in your skillet. However, if you are using nonstick pans, you will want to avoid using metal utensils, as these can scratch or damage the nonstick coating.
While this cue may seem obvious, I think it bears emphasis here. For many people the act of tasting your food only happens once—at the very end—when the food is “done” and already on the table. But when cooking, as long as it is safe (don’t try to taste uncooked meat), it’s very helpful to taste your ingredients and season as you go. Tasting is something you can and should do throughout the process of cooking, not just at the beginning or end. Taste, adjust salt and other seasonings, and taste again. Some flavors like bitterness or earthiness may have faded into the background, while others like brightness or savoriness will become more apparent. But it’s important to remember that you may not want to declare your food “done” until you have tasted, adjusted, and tasted again.
Timing is another cue that is equally helpful for both blind and sighted cooks. Though timing should almost never be relied on exclusively, it is important to have a rough estimate of how long something will take to cook before you get started. At the very least, it will give you a sense of whether things are going right or wrong. If your timer goes off, you check your food, and it seems to be done, then great job! If your timer goes off, you check your food, and it is not done yet, then you have a chance to figure out why there might be a discrepancy. Maybe your heat is too low, or maybe you added too many ingredients at once and it caused your temperature to drop. Either way, your solution is probably more time, or more heat, or both. However, it is important not to focus entirely on your timer and ignore other cues that might signal your food is cooking too quickly. If your cookies have only been in the oven for five minutes and you start to smell caramelization verging on burning, don’t ignore what your senses are telling you. Open the oven, take the cookies out, and check on them to figure out what is going on.
Ultimately, one big benefit of timers is that they let you stop worrying about something for a period, so you can make use of the downtime in a recipe to clean up or get something else done. Whether it’s a pizza dough that needs to rise for thirty minutes, a soup that needs to simmer for forty-five minutes, or a meat that needs two to three minutes to properly sear before flipping, setting a timer frees you up from having to make yet another mental note, allowing you to work more efficiently and stay more present. Also, nowadays, many smart speakers like Alexa and Google Home allow you to set multiple timers, and to even name them so you don’t get two different timers confused. You can even use Siri on your phone to set timers, though you may want to use the “Hey Siri” feature so that you don’t have to touch your phone with messy hands.
While many of us may just think of the sounds from a kitchen as background noise, if you pay close attention, there is a lot of valuable information that can be picked up from it. Sound can tell you a lot about the temperature of a pan or ingredient, the rate at which something is cooking, and the overall level of doneness. There is even a difference in sound between hot and cold water as you pour it into a glass, though this is probably more of a party trick than a cooking technique.
As an example, we can look at cooking bacon on the stove. First, we want the pan to be nice and hot before anything goes into it. After turning the burner to medium and waiting a minute or two, you can run your hand under the sink and flick a few water droplets onto your pan. If they sizzle right away, you know your pan is preheated. Now, as you first place your bacon into the pan, you should hear a nice sharp sizzle. If there is no sizzle at all, your heat is too low. If it sizzles too violently, your heat is too high. As the bacon continues to cook, you will notice that the volume of the sizzle will start to go down, but the pitch of the sizzle will start to go up. When you flip the bacon after about a minute or two, you should notice a new, rejuvenated sizzle, but not as loud as when the first side hit the pan. This lets you know that the previously uncooked topside of the bacon is now on the bottom, and the bottom side is now the top.
As you continue to cook the bacon, the volume of the sizzle will continue to go down and the pitch will continue to go up. This lets you know that both fat and moisture are being rendered out of your bacon. I prefer to take mine out of the pan while there is still some moderate sizzling. This gives me a strip of bacon with crispy edges but a somewhat chewy middle part. If you cook the bacon until there is very little or no sound, you will have very crispy, nearly burnt bacon.
Smell is the last of the major cues for testing for doneness. While it would be hard to rely on smell alone, it can serve as a good signpost to let you know your cooking is on track. For instance, if you are baking cookies, a good indicator that they are nearly ready to come out of the oven is when the smell starts to perfume the whole kitchen. This tells you that the sugars in the dough are caramelizing, or “turning golden brown” as your recipe probably states. You can also smell meat as it browns, or oil as it heats up.
One last note on using smell is that anytime you smell burning, you should always figure out where it is coming from. It might just be some crumbs that fell to the bottom of the oven, or it might be that your Alexa set a timer for fifty minutes instead of fifteen. Either way, you will want to get to the bottom of it and decide whether it is something to worry about or not.
I’ve outlined five cues that, when combined, can give you a wealth of information about your cooking and whether it is done or not. But while these are good techniques for blind cooks, I would argue that they are equally important for sighted cooks as well. After all, they are all just different sources of information, and the more information you have the better informed your decisions will be. If a sighted cook were simply waiting for his/her food to turn a certain color, they could easily miss the fact that it smelled fully done five minutes ago, or that it is now as hard as a rock, or that there is no sizzle whatsoever. In conclusion, I would say that for anyone who wants to become a better cook, stay present—and pay attention to your food and all the cues it is giving you.