stock & congee: what to do with all that leftover turkey

Our deep-fried turkey before it became a bare carcass.

Your crazy family came and went. Now all that’s left is a big ol’ turkey carcass. Wait, don’t throw anything away just yet. In this time and age when offal eating has become the trend, I’m going to show you what you can do with all those leftover turkey bones.

First, you make turkey stock. Duh! Then, you use that stock to make turkey congee.

Every Asian country has its own version of rice porridge. It’s the ultimate Asian comfort food. Think of the Americans with their chicken noodle soup. Well, the Asians have their rice porridge. It’s what you feed someone under the weather. I admit I used to hate congee or chao (as it’s called in Vietnamese) because it was all my mama let me eat when I was sick. Incidentally, I grew to associate congee only with illness. Of course it left a negative impression on me. But now that I’ve got no mama to cook me homemade congee, I had to roll up my sleeves and do it myself. Now I don’t necessarily eat congee just when I’m sick; I’ll eat it when it’s cold out. (Speaking of which, Houston is finally starting to feel like winter. Yippee!) I eat it because it’s hearty, warm, and best of all, simple to make. I almost always have the ingredients on hand to make congee, but even if I don’t, the great thing about congee is its versatility. You can just about throw anything into it. Perhaps the only requirement is stock or broth and rice. (I’ve even seen some people cook congee with plain water but I don’t recommend this—too plain.)

So read on, and learn how to make turkey stock with that leftover carcass and then, subsequently, turkey congee. And remember, if the Blind can Cook it, so can you. Happy winter eating!

 

: Turkey Stock

: Stock can be made from any animal’s bones, but I especially like poultry stock made from chicken, duck, or turkey.

 

  1. 1 bird carcass
  2. 2 to 3 carrots, chopped into 2″ pcs.
  3. 2 to 3 celery stalks, cut into 2″ pcs.
  4. 1 med. onion, chopped
  5. 1 to 2 bay leaves

 

  1. If necessary, chop bones so they will fit into a stockpot. Place bones into a stockpot and fill with enough water to cover. Add carrots, celery, onion, and bay leaves. Bring almost to a boil but do not let it boil.
  2. Reduce heat. In the first hr., skim off any scum that floats to the surface. Cover and let simmer for approx 3 hrs.
  3. Turn off heat and let cool. Strain through a mesh sieve into containers, leaving 1/2″ space at the top. (This is to prevent the containers from busting when the stock expands in the freezer.) Discard bones and vegetables.
  4. Refrigerate overnight. Spoon out and discard any gelatenous fat that solidifies at the top before using or freezing.

Preparation time: 5 minute(s)

Cooking time: 3 hour(s)

: Turkey Congee

: Chao is the Vietnamese term for congee.

 

  1. 1 c. uncooked jasmine rice
  2. 4 to 6 c. turkey stock
  3. 3/4 c. leftover turkey meat, shredded
  4. 1/2 med. onion, chopped
  5. 1 sm. pc. ginger, minced
  6. 1 to 2 carrots, peeled & finely chopped (optional)
  7. 2 tbsp. fish sauce or to taste
  8. 1 scallion, finely chopped
  9. a few sprigs cilantro, finely chopped (optional)
  10. ground black pepper

 

  1. In a med. saucepan, combine rice, stock, turkey meat, onion, ginger, and carrots if using. Bring to a low boil.
  2. Reduce heat and add fish sauce. Cover and let simmer for approx. 25 min. or until rice reaches desired consistency. Season with ground black pepper and more fish sauce to taste. Garnish with scallion and cilantro. Serve hot.

Preparation time: 5 minute(s)

Cooking time: 30 minute(s)

my go-to recipes for thanksgiving

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving already. Boy, has this year slipped past. I’ve been swamped with all of the usual end-of-year business such as holiday prepping and semester wrapping-up not to mention I’m in the middle of my Rituxan treatments which have got me all exhausted. Why doesIt seem like I only get beat down by this NMO during such inconvenient times like the holidays or when a hurricane is coming to town? But as with most things in life, you get all sorts of things thrown at you, and you just learn to take them in stride. I’ve been thinking about Joan Didion’s novel Play It As It Lays lately, how you just need to play the cards you’re dealt. Anyway, it’s Thanksgiving, and I still have lots to be thankful for.

I’ve already posted some of my favorite Thanksgiving recipes last year, so no need to waste cyberspace and repost. Instead, I’ll just link to them. Slap on your apron and get to cookin’! Happy Thanksgiving, and don’t forget what you’re grateful for.

 

 

 

eating sf 1.2: more ice cream, dim sum, neapolitan pizza & wine (and beer) country

Russian River in Santa Rosa

With less than two full days left in the Bay area, John and I tried to cram everything food-wise into our schedule. We woke up early Monday morning to a dreary, drizzly day and made our way north to wine country. We meant to drive across the Golden Gate bridge since we were heading to Russian River in Santa Rosa first, killing two birds with one stone so John can finally see the acclaimed bridge he’d so often seen in photos and on TV. But being heavily dependent of the GPS, we ended up crossing the Bay bridge instead. Oh well.

On the way to Russian River, we stopped by Lagunitas which was only a tiny store. The brewery wasn’t open that day for tours so John quickly ran inside to grab a few bottles while I waited in the car where it was nice and dry. We idled up the highway and finally came upon the famous Russian River who makes two of the top beers in the world (according to Beer Advocate). The place was filled with the lunch crowd. We immediately ordered the flight of beers which gave us a 2 oz.-serving of every beer on tap that day from both the California-style hop ales and the Belgian-style ales. It was a perfect marriage as John liked the hoppier beers while I preferred the sweeter Belgian ones. We also ordered two pizzas: one with mushrooms, the other with corn and cilantro. Both were very good and complemented the different beers. When it came time to check out, John bought half a dozen Pliny the Elders and one Damnation (or was it Salvation?). We left satisfied and full.

Joseph Phelps winery in Napa

Our next stop was the Joseph Phelps winery, recommended to us by our friend Stan whom was kind enough to house us for our visit. Admittedly, John and I know very little about wine, so while we paid $80 for a tasting, we liked them all but couldn’t define what it was that we liked about each one. I thought about buying a bottle, but the prices were too steep, and thinking about transporting them and all the other money we’d been spending on food discouraged me from dishing out the dough for a bottle of their pinot noir.

Two months before our trip, we had tried to get reservations at French Laundry. I actually called the restaurant back in May when I knew I’d be coming to the Bay area for my friend’s wedding, but they laughed at me and said reservations are only accepted two calendar months ahead of time. So I put it on my calendar, and on August 9, John and I began calling the restaurant to get our names on the list. We both got busy signals for quite some time, and I gave up after a few minutes. John got through a few hours later and was on hold for twenty minutes. Finally, he spoke to a live person who only told him we had to go on a waiting list. I also got through the next day on August 10, but I was disappointed again: October 10 is also full.

Dinner at Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc Restaurant in Napa Valley

So fast forward. We never heard from French Laundry. I ended up making reservations at Thomas Keller’s other more casual restaurant, Ad Hoc. We showed up right as they opened, and our entire meal from start to finish was delightful. The restaurant had a casual cozy yet modern feel from the decor to the furnishings to the staff uniforms (John told me they looked like simple Dickies work shirts). The menu is set, and the food is served family style. For that Monday, the first course was a mixed greens salad with sunburst tomatoes, prosciutto, and pomegranate seeds. The second main course consisted of Wagyu beef skewers, pork ribs, cole slaw, and smashed purple potatoes. The meat was good, but the things I could not get over were the purple potatoes. They were lightly smashed with a fork and roasted with what tasted like rich buttermilk, making the bite-sized purple things so simply delectable. I could not stop oohing and aahing about the purple potatoes, and ever since then, they have become my latest food obsession. (Stay tuned for a recipe.)

The third course was a cheese and apple mostardo platter, followed by the fourth and last course: cornbread topped with homemade vanilla ice cream and candied cashews. The service, like the ambience, was attentive but not at all stuffy. Best of all, it was a fraction of what we would’ve paid had we gone to French Laundry. Only regret was not coming on the day they had the fried chicken.

We drove back to the city with plans to eat a second dinner. We were pretty tired so decided to order it as take-out. Delfina Pizzeria is famous for their Neapolitan pizzas. We didn’t care that we just had pizza for lunch; we were going to eat it again for dinner. They had run out of the clam pie so we ordered one with a tomato cream sauce and another with prosciutto and arugula. Delfina was nice enough to pack the prosciutto and arugula on the side so they wouldn’t be wilted by the time we opened the box at home.

Neapolitan style pizza from Pizzeria Delfina

Never before in my life did I like arugula, but twice today I had it accompanied by prosciutto. There’s something about the fatty saltiness and mildly sweetness of the prosciutto that cuts so well into the bitterness of the arugula. Ever since I returned from our trip, I’ve been dreaming about prosciutto and arugula, combining the duo on top of homemade pizzas and salads.

We also hit up Bi-Rite, a creamery known for interesting flavors. I sampled the honey lavender and balsamic strawberry, both of which were amazing. We ended up walking out with pints of honey lavender and salted caramel. Lucky for us, it was a rainy Monday night so the line was short—only a five minute wait instead of the usual wraparound-outside line. After we pigged out, it was time for bed. Another day of eating ahead of us before catching our flight back home.

The next morning, we stopped by Tartine Bakery to see what the hype was all about. Lucky for us again, there was a short line. Upon the bakery’s recommendation, we purchased a morning bun and the bread pudding. We also threw in a regular croissant and a chocolate pain (“bread” in French, not that we were getting punched by the chocolate). Surprisingly, the two things we picked out on our own turned out to be the best in the bunch. The bread pudding, while good, was not something phenomenal or new to me. And the morning bun, which was like a fancy cinnamon roll, was also too rich for me. Maybe I preferred something simpler.

Our last Bay meal: Dim sum at Koi Palace

For lunch, we hit up Koi Palace in Daly City for some West Coast dim sum. We noticed everything, to our astonishment, was larger here than in Texas (at least when it came to dim sum). The xiu mai were larger, the shrimp in the dumplings were huge. Everything was so tasty, but we were seriously splitting our pants by this point. We had some time after lunch before our flight so we parked at a park overlooking the water and took a short nap in the rental car. It’s been several weeks since our trip, but we still talk fondly of the Bay area and all the awesome things we ate. Expensive, yes. But totally worth it.

eating sf 1.1: sushi, ice cream, garlic noodles & ferry building farmer’s market

Men's Health named RoliRoti's porchetta the #1 street eat in America

My childhood best friend got married last month in Montery, and it was an opportunity for me to revisit the lovely Bay area. It would be John’s first time to northern California so naturally, we made a list of all the things we wanted to see and do. You would think our list included the Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street, Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, Alcatraz, or riding a true cable car. But no, being the foodaphiles we are, we saw none of those. Each day was about getting from one food item to the next. It was insane but in an awesome insanity kind of way, as much as insanity can be awesome. Needless to say, we are already missing the Bay area: the weather, the atmosphere, the nature, and especially the food. Here is a little tribute to our recent trip to lovely NorCal.

We arrived late Friday night so of course we hit up the In-N-Out by the airport. I was not terribly hungry because I’d caved on the plane and bought a cheeseburger (which, surprisingly, was not bad for airplane food—thanks, Continental/now United), so I just ordered their animal-style fries. Now if you’re not familiar with In-N-Out’s secret menu, animal style just means adding caramelized onions and thousand island dressing on whatever it is you ordered. Thus animal-style fries means this topping on top of fries. In-N-Out is good but honestly, I prefer Five Guysto In-N-Out. I know, blasphemy…but hey, I have my opinions. Maybe there will have to be a future post on this topic.

Saturday morning, we immediately hit up the Ferry Building farmer’s market for we’d heard so many great things. I remember on John’s first trip to NYC, he came upon the Union Square farmer’s market and was in awe; it was the first farmer’s market he’d ever been to, and he was so happy gazing at all the vibrant produce and interesting local eats. Of course, the one in SF’s Ferry Building would be that much better. And better it was. Blocks of booths and stands and food venues. Asian pears, samosas, oysters, coffee…it was a food paradise. We tried New Orleans style coffee from Blue Bottle which we’d also heard about. The lines were long but there were two locations within the venue, so we got our orders after fifteen minutes. The coffee is very fresh—the beans are ground on order (which explains the wait). We also tried a few different types of oysters from Hog Island Oysters which also had two spots in the area. We opted to order ours from the farmer’s market stand rather than the restaurant inside the Ferry Building. At $2 each, they are not cheap, but they were definitely fresh, smaller and sweeter than the Gulf Coast’s larger and brinier variety. Here oysters tend to be eaten with just a little olive oil and shallots rather than cocktail sauce and horseradish, a method that supposedly preserves the taste integrity of the oyster. Either way, they were delicious.

We saw another long line at RoliRoti, a mobile rotisserie unit. The couple in line advised us to try the porchetta, a slow-roasted pork served on ciabatta bread. After the dude behind the counter chops up your pork, he takes the bread slices and mops up the pork juices so all that fatty goodness soaks into your ciabatta. A little sweet onion dresses the sandwich, and voila, you’ve got yourself a $9 sandwich. We ate the porchetta (which was featured in Men’s Health for being one of the 10 Best Street Eats in America) on a bench facing the bay with the sun smiling down on us. Life is good, man.

Hog Island oysters smaller and sweeter than our Gulf Coast ones

On Sunday, we returned to the Ferry Building to eat, this time, inside the Hog Island Oysters restaurant. John and I shared a flight (“flight” sounds better and less Applebee’s-like than “sampler platter”) of oysters with our friend Stan: a variety of 24 for $60—steep, but hey, we were on vacation. Upon Stan’s recommendation, we also tried the clam chowder. It came in a thin creamy soup that tasted heavily of bacon, and the small clams were swimming inside with their shells still on. John, who is used to thick chowder, made me happy when he said it tasted a lot like my clam chowder with the exception that I’d used canned clams instead of fresh—next time, I’ll have to try using live ones. We also ordered the oyster stew which wasn’t bad but wasn’t great. The portions are small (perhaps I’m used to huge impossible Texas dishes); and 24 oysters, three stews/chowders, and three non-alcoholic beverages set us back $130. Ouch, but as usual, when we’re on vacation, we eat like our wallets are bottomless.

Creative ice cream flavors at Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous

Next we grabbed ice cream at Mr. And Mrs. Miscellaneous in Dogpatch. I had the jasmine green tea on a cone while John tried both that and browned butter. Mr. And Mrs. Miscellaneous is one of the many ice cream shops serving up creative flavors in SF, e.g. candied violet (which tasted like a purple Skittle exploded in my mouth). The ice cream is served in a perfect ball on top of a skinny cone; it looked just like a toy and was so adorable that it made me love the shop even more for presentation. What is it about ice cream that gets your heart pumping? The scientific answer is probably all the cream and sugar that goes in it, but the romantic side of me prefers to say it’s the sweet coolness of it hitting your tongue that causes the endorphins to go out of control.

Some of the best sushi I've ever had, Kabuto served foie gras sushi.

For our first supper (that’s right, I said first,/em>), Stan took us to Kabuto Sushi where I had the best sushi I’d ever had in my life. Even when I went to Japan in 2007, the sushi was not as delicious as Kabuto’s. Okay, so there’s a huge caveat: when I went to Japan, we couldn’t afford to eat at the real sushi joints because they were way expensive so we only ate at the kaitensushi bars which, yes, are considered the fast food of Japanese sushi. I’m sure if I’d had the better sushi in Japan, it’d be comparable if not better than what I had at Kabuto. But regardless, Kabuto had the best sushi I’d had this side of the Pacific. Everything was ordered a la carte, and each piece was roughly $5 a pop. The traditional sushi we had was blue fin tuna (my favorite bite that evening), butterfish, escolar, Tasmanian salmon (which was disappointingly lavorless), and sea urchin. We also had some of their more creative sushi like the fatty tuna seared with a blowtorch; foie gras with raspberry on top of sushi rice; yellowtail paired with pear and hot mustard; a twist on the classic ceviche served on seaweed; and last but not least eel tossed with pear, foie gras, and chocolate sauce served in a martini glass. The presentation of this last one was a bit over the top for my taste but in terms of taste and creativity, it was the winner among the creative line.

Supper #2: Crab & garlic noodles at Thanh Long

Immediately after we settled the bill at Kabuto, we made our way across town to Thanh Longwhere we had our second supper of salt and pepper dungeness crab and garlic noodles. We also tried their shaking beef which used ribeye steak and came so flavorful that it didn’t need the traditional dipping sauce.

I left stuffed and was sad that I could not enjoy more of Thanh Long. That is what I get for being a glutton. We went home and while waiting to fall asleep, looked up where to eat the next day. We knew we’d be heading to Napa: more good food and drink. Stay tuned for more of our SF eating adventures.

meet the blind geek

Who is the Blind Geek? Me, that’s who.

In order to streamline topics, I’ve started up a new blog dedicated to tech news and reviews for the blind: the Blind Geek. That way, the Blind Cook can concentrate on all things food related. The Blind Geek is already up and running–all content from this blog under the “Technological advances” category has been copied over there–and from now on, all tech related entries will post only on The Blind Geek. Please be patient: the blog is still undergoing a makeover though it’s functioning for the most part. Also, my techie husband, John, will also be a contributing writer to the Blind Geek. I hope you decide to subscribe to both blogs. Any feedback is welcome.

oven-fried chicken

Mmm...greeease...

Again it’s been a while since I posted a food entry. It’s not that I haven’t been eating or cooking. It’s just I’ve been doing a lot more thinking about food and cooking rather than writing ever since I read The Flavor Bible (which I still need to blog about). Anyway, back to what makes the world go round: food.

I’m often asked what would be my last meal. Because this question is so difficult for someone that loves so many different kinds of food, my last meal would inevitably be a multiple-course meal consisting of all my favorite eats: sushi, French fries, my mama’s eggrolls, New- York-style cheese pizza, fried chicken, and a bowl of noodle soup (most likely ramen or pho). I don’t know if there’s a commonality to my favorite foods except maybe DELICIOUS! Just kidding. Maybe unhealthy? Aside from the sushi, I guess.

So yes, fried chicken is one of my favorite foods. Most things can’t go wrong when they’re dropped in a vat of oil. While I love KFC’s original recipe and Popeye’s Cajun spicy fried chicken, I thought why not try my hand at homemade fried chicken? The last time I attempted fried chicken years ago, I made the mistake of not monitoring the oil temperature and so the chicken turned out charred on the outside and still raw on the inside. This time, I followed a method from Ina Garten that involves frying the chicken to seal in the juices and then finishing it off in the oven for thorough cooking. I tried to look online for KFC’s secret original recipe but my kitchen was missing the MSG (not to mention marjoram at the time) so I had to make due with only nine out of the eleven secret herbs and spices. I only put in about half the amount of herbs and spices as I should have, and the chicken could’ve used more flavor, but trial error is inevitable. I boosted the measurements in the recipe below, so hopefully your chicken turns out even tastier. A quick tip before you fry: to keep chicken crispy, set fried pieces atop brown paper bags instead of paper towels after frying. Happy frying, and remember that if the Blind can Cook it, so can you!

 

: Oven-Fried Chicken

: Original recipe from Barefoot Contessa Family Style

 

  1. 2 (3 lbs.) chickens, each cut into 8 pcs.
  2. 1 qt. buttermilk
  3. 2 c. all-purpose flour
  4. 1 tbsp. kosher salt
  5. 1 tbsp. freshly ground black pepper
  6. 1 tsp. dried basil
  7. 1 tsp. chili powder
  8. 1 tsp. garlic powder
  9. 1 tsp. dried marjoram
  10. 1 tsp. onion salt
  11. 1 tsp. dried oregano
  12. 1 tsp. paprika
  13. 1 tsp. ground sage
  14. 2 tbsp. MSG
  15. vegetable shorening or oil for frying

 

  1. Place chicken pcs. in a baking pan and pour buttermilk over them. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
  2. Combine flour, and all 11 herbs and spices in a lg. bowl. Take each chicken piece out of the buttermilk and cover liberally with flour mixture. Pour oil or shortening in a lg. heavy-bottomed stockpot to a depth of 1″. Heat oil to 360 degrees.
  3. Working in batches, carefully place several pieces of chicken in oil and fry for 3 min. on each side or until coating is a light golden brown. (It will continue to brown in the oven.) Don’t crowd the pieces. Remove chicken from oil and place each piece on a metal baking rack set on a sheet pan. Allow oil to return to 360 degrees before frying next batch.
  4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  5. When all the chicken is fried, bake for 30 to 40 min. until chicken is no longer pink inside. Serve hot.

Preparation time: 10 minute(s)

Cooking time: 1 hour(s)

steve jobs, the genius behind apple who pioneered accessible technology, dies at 56

Tonight as I was covered in flour from making chicken marsala, my iPhone kept ringing over and over, the caller persistent in reaching me. Finally after washing my hands, I swiped and double-clicked via the clever VoiceOver technology and found that it was my husband calling from his evening jog to tell me Steve Jobs had died. I asked my Apple fanboy of a husband if he cried, and he said, “Almost.” When I hung up, I texted a friend, and as I returned to the sizzling pan, I was surprised to find myself sad beyond what I’d expected of such news.

Steve Jobs became a household name after I met my now husband who turned me on to Apple products back in 2007. Since his own conversion years prior, John had converted dozens of friends, family, acquaintances, and even sometimes strangers perusing the computer aisle at Best Buy on to Apple. Since the iPod, Steve Jobs has become a household name everywhere, his innovative products popping up in homes across the globe. People ate up the iPod, then the Macbooks, then iMacs and Mac Minis and iPads–nobody had ever seen anything like those Apples.

The story behind Apple and their history with Steve Jobs is fascinating, and the world will get to read all about it come November 21 when the long-awaited Steve Jobs biography is released. Even months before it’s stocked on the bookshelves, Steve Jobs’s biography has been a top selling pre-ordered item on Amazon. Timely coincidence that the biography was due out on bookshelves so close to his passing? Maybe, but supposedly the book’s release was pushed up to November because everyone knew Steve wasn’t doing well, this notion only fortified by his resignation as Apple’s CEO only months before. And now with his passing, there is no doubt the book will be a bestseller.

Tonight, even the Apple website, which is always littered with product advertisements, only displays a full-screen portrait of Jobs with his life span, “1955-2011.” I can only imagine the ferocious dumping of Apple stock tomorrow once that morning bell rings on Wall Street.

Apparently, death escapes no one.

In Steve Jobs’s commencement speech to Stanford’s Class of ’05, he says:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

No matter if you’re a refugee who had been working toward a triple degree in law, philosophy, and literature before escaping from a war-ravaged country on a naval ship; or if you’re a creative genius who changed the face of technology; no matter if you were my mother or if you were Apple’s CEO; death is the destination we all share. (You should really read Steve Jobs’s commencement speech–it is truly awesome and inspirational.)

It is an eerie coincidence that Steve died the day after the latest Apple announcements, but his legend lives on. The new iPhone 4S boasts Siri, the virtual assistant that lets you communicate with your phone as though you were speaking to your butler or KITT the Knight Rider car. John had been harping about this new phone feature for the past several weeks, and while I admitted it was cool, I wasn’t sold; a part of me wanted to hold out for the next round numbered model up: the iPhone 5. But then tonight, John played me this video, and I think I’m in love.

John told me the last woman in the video is reading Braille and then uses the new iPhone 4S to text her friend. More power to the blind!

Apple has changed the world. Steve Jobs had changed Apple. By transitive property, Steve Jobs changed the world. He envisioned every household owning a personal computer. He envisioned it, and then he made it possible. And he made it so that even blind people could use it. He empowered everyone. He empowered the blind.

Thank you, Steve Jobs. May you live on in our innovations.

Stay hungry. Stay foolish.

2011 nmo patient day, here i come

Last year, I attended the Guthy Jackson Charitable Foundation in L.A. This year, I was unsure if I could go, but things fell into place, and it looks like I’ll be coming once again. I’m thankful for these sorts of gatherings because not only does it give hope and knowledge by the spread of information, it builds community. NMO can often be a lonely disease, and (as ironic as it sounds) it’s wonderful to be in a room full of people who share the same battles. It was here that at this same time last year I met Erin and Jenna, and the birth of NMO Diaries commenced. I encourage those who have NMO or loves somebody who does to attend the 2011 NMO Patient Day to be held on November 9 at the Hilton Beverly Hills in L.A. Maybe I’ll see you there. And even if you can’t make it in person, you can view it from the comforts of your own home for the events are broadcasted over the web for full accessibility for those who cannot travel.

accessibility improves with the new mac lion osx

It seems like all I’ve been complaining about lately is the unaccessibility of so many things on the internet, e.g. Facebook, iTunes, Evite, and so on. Oftentimes, it bleeds into my frustrations with my own hardware; my PC-run JAWS is slow, crashing often, leaving me with just the blue screen of death. (Thank goodness for residual vision or else I don’t know how I’d know I’d gotten the blue screen.)

When I first met my now husband, he was an Apple fanboy. Now that he’s my husband, he’s still an Apple fanboy. He turned me on to Apple Macbooks, telling me what he tells all Macbook virgins: “Give it two weeks. I guarantee you’ll like it so much more than Windows and PCs.” And he was right. Everything ran so much simpler and more efficiently. The layout and functionality of the OSX required a small learning curve, but after two weeks, I was practically a Macbook pro (with a lowercase “p”).

I started out using Apple when it was the era of the Tiger OSX. And with each subsequent OSX upgrade (and thus, the feline superiority scale), we are now in the era of the Lion. I was already blown away with the Tiger OSX’s VoiceOver capability, but now Lion boasts a most advanced VoiceOver.

My first laptop was a 17″ Dell PC–I bought something with a huge screen because at the time, I was only beginning to lose my vision so I relied mostly on zoom magnification to use my computer. I magnified all the fonts in my Word docs to 30+-point font. After meeting John, I moved over to Apple and got a 15″ Macbook Pro. Then my vision worsened even more until where it is now, and I could no longer rely on screen magnification. Instead, I had to start using screen readers, so I decided a 15″ laptop was too heavy and bought a 13″ Macbook since seeing the screen no longer mattered. Last month, I sold my 13″ Macbook and bought the new 11″ Macbook Air because I wanted something ultra-portable, especially because attending many classes and conferences the last couple of years made even lugging a 13″ around annoying. After spending days setting up and moving over files to my new 11″, I said to my husband, “I feel like all my past laptops were just boyfriends, and now I’m finally married to one.” Yup, I plan to run this Macbook Air to the ground.

The Macbook Air came with the Lion OSX. Without further adieu, here are the blind user observations I’ve had over the past month.

What I Like About the Lion OSX:

  1. iCal event input is more intuitive. Now you can add a new event to your calendar by typing CMD+N, and then typing in “Mom’s birthday dinner 11/5 7 PM to 9 PM.” Hitting enter will create that exact event in the iCal. I read online that you’re supposed to be able to designate an event location in the same way, but I’ve tried it (“Mom’s birthday dinner at Taco Bell on 11/5 7 PM to 9 PM”), and it didn’t move “Taco Bell” to the location field. Does anyone know why? Still, this input option provides a quicker way to add events–after hitting ENTER, I just tab once to the location field and input it manually.
  2. Address Book no longer requires a year input for birthdays. In Snow Leopard, if you didn’t know a year for someone’s birthday, it would default to some nonsensical year, making your mom, like, thirteen or something ridiculous. (No offense, if you are a thirteen-year-old mom.) No known year? No problem. But if you do know the year, your iCal will display that person’s age come birthday time: “Mom’s 60th birthday.” (And you’re taking her to Taco Bell?!)
  3. Address Book has more field options for further categorization. If you’re anal like me, you like to remember friends’ anniversaries (even though you don’t really wish them a happy five years or anything), their partner’s name, dog’s name, their blog URL, Twitter handle, maiden name…and the list goes on. The new Address Book has many of these fields and more. (Okay, maybe I’m the only one out there actually using these new features, but it’s nice to have the option.)
  4. Mail keeps conversation threads together. This helps to sort emails when there are a lot of back-and-forths with your husband about what to do about dinner. Apple takes a hint from Gmail.

Things I’m Still Having Trouble with on Lion OSX

  1. Apps take some getting used to with VoiceOver. As with anything new, there is a learning curve. The curve is especially steeper for the visually impaired. There are still things I am used to or prefer with Snow Leopard: I’d rather have VO read to me an event title and date/time when I tab to it in iCal rather than the event title and location, but I don’t know how to revert this; and there are still some navigational issues around apps,, but I hope this will resolve itself after more experience with Lion.
  2. Gestures, scrolling, QuickNav, and VO buttons are still confusing. This is an extension of #1 from this list–even at 32, I feel like an old fart (“What’s the internet?”). I know there are so many useful tools for the sight-impaired on the Apple, but I need some time to get used to them (not to mention someone to teach them to me). The scrolling is a little off-putting at first because now, you swipe up on the trackpad to scroll down on a document rather than swipe down to scroll down. This is the way it’s done on the iPhone, though, so I imagine it will catch on.
  3. Sent emails stick around in the drafts folder. I have no idea why some of the emails I’ve already sent still remain in the Drafts folder as though I had not sent them. This gets annoying, especially for someone like me who loves organization. This issue tricks me into wondering if I actually sent an email or not.
  4. Zoom magnification is glitchy. On the Snow Leopard OSX, the zoom magnification function worked by holding down CTRL and using two fingers on the trackpad to scrooll up (for zooming in) and down (for zooming out). This feature has to be enabled in Lion: System Preferences>>Universal Access>>Seeing tab>>Zoom Options, then check the box labeled “Use scroll wheel with modifier keys to zoom.” Make sure the field following that reads CTRL. Despite this, sometimes the zooming function using CTRL and up scroll or down scroll shuts off. I find that it works again if you go into the Preferences and uncheck and recheck the box, but this is annoying.

Lion OSX is supposed to be more compatible with Braille displays, and its VO features are the best yet. I tried to learn about it but got overwhelmed with the page. I’m considering paying $100 to get the one-on-one tutorial with the Genius Bar to learn all about VO. I still do not know how to navigate web browsers and inernet sites with VO, and I know this is possible. Hopefully this will allow me to use VO to its full capacity, and then the world is mine!

Do you have questions about the Lion OSX or Apple’s accessibility? You might be able to find VoiceOver answers here. Want to know more about the Lion? Learn about the Lion OSX here. Know how to use VO with Lion? Teach me in the comments section, please! Or just want to speak to your personal experience with Apple, Macs, VO, or Lion? Your comments are welcome, too.

metrolift: how the blind get around houston

MetroLIFT bus

Ridin' around town

Deb C. recently friended me on Yelp and checked out this site upon seeing the link for it in my profile. She sent me a kind note telling me to keep it up but also had a very pertinent question: how do I get around?

I was going to send her a link to a post I’d written on this blog about the MetroLIFT, but upon searching for the post, I realized I never wrote one. Egad! So here it is, the long awaited post of how the visually impaired get around Houston.

I first heard about MetroLIFT from my orientation/mobility (OM) trainer who, through Lighthouse of Houston, helped me become more independent by use of a white cane. Those lessons were scary in themselves, and I should save them for a later post (or if it’s meant to be, a future memoir). But my OM instructor was the one to introduce me to the shared ride service that is called MetroLIFT. If you ever see those short buses driving around town and wondered who was on it, it’s those who can’t drive themselves. And those yellow cabs? More often than not, they’re also contracted by Metro to run MetroLIFT services. In a city like Houston where most everyone has cars, the need for taxi transportation is nearly nil, so many of the cab companies “loan” their cars to MetroLIFT.

To qualify for MetroLIFT service, you will have to go for an interview. I had brought my Certificate of Blindness (which was issued by DARSafter an opthalmology exam) with me for proof of my disability. If you’re approved for MetroLIFT service, you will receive a MetroLIFT ID in the mail which should be presented to the driver before every ride. (Apparently, there are people out there who abuse this transportation system.)

The service isn’t free but it’s incredibly affordable. There are two payment options: the pass or the ticket. If you plan to use MetroLIFT frequently (e.g. going to and from a full-time job), the pass will be the more economical route. I, however, am a graduate student with classes maybe once or twice a week, so I opt to purchase MetroLIFT tickets. Whether you use the pass or the ticket, that and your MetroLIFT ID should be given to the driver at the start of each ride. A monthly pass which gives you unlimited rides for one month costs $38.60 while an annual pass is $347. A single ride ticket is $1.15. I buy my tickets in sheets of ten for $9.75, making each one-way trip less than $1–cheap if you consider the prices of gas, car maintenance, and auto insurance. You can purchase ticket sheets at almost any large grocery store’s courtesy booth. As a disabled patron, you can also have one person accompany you free of charge.

To schedule a ride, call the reservations line (see below for all phone numbers) and speak to an operator if it’s your first time to or from a particular destination. Once the address has been recorded in your file, you can use MAX, the automated service, to schedule rides. Rides must be scheduled by 5 PM the day before.

MetroLIFT is convenient for those of us who can’t drive ourselves, but it’s not without its downsides. My chief complaint is the time used up when riding MetroLIFT. For example, I live 20 minutes from campus without traffic, but when I ride the MetroLIFT to school, I am often on the bus for an hour or two. I know the LIFT is a shared ride service (meaning the bus picks up and drops off other patrons along the way), but seriously? Then there is the late factor. I always input my appointment time (time I want to reach my destination) as 30 to 45 minutes before the actual time I want to be there just to be on time. Sometimes I am 2 hours early for class, and other times I am 20 minutes late. It is so varied that it’s not always dependable. They say to speak to a supervisor if your ride is late, and you’ve called twice without results, but most of the time, the dispatch operators don’t seem to care. I don’t even know which is worse–arriving way too early for class and knowing I could’ve been at home getting other things done, or running into class late and breathless and looking truant. I’m not the only one with this complaint; KHOU did a story on MetroLIFT client complaints last year.

Of course, riding the LIFT has its share of stresses, but in the end, I am still grateful there is an inexpensive, relatively reliable transportation service for the disabled. For now, it seems to be our only option short of hiring a personal driver. And if you’re not a millionaire, MetroLIFT will have to do for now.

MetroLIFT Phone Numbers

  • Reservations (to schedule rides): 713-225-6716
  • Dispatch (to check when your ride is scheduled to arrive or to work out scheduling issues): 713-225-0410
  • Main (customer service): 713-225-0119

To reach MAX the automated service, call either the reservations or dispatch line and press 1.

Use the MetroLIFT yourself or know somebody who does? What is your experience?

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