I was bitten by the traveling bug as soon as I had a little money to do it. It began with my first trip to NYC my senior year of college during spring break. It was the first non-family trip I took that involved getting on a plane (and not just loading up in a car and driving down to South Padre). It was then that I realized there were so many other things in this world that I had no clue about, and I suddenly wanted to be cultured. If NYC blew me away, what would Brazil, Ireland, Turkey, Japan do to me?
Of course, I’d always loved food as well. And when I got older, accumulated more dollar bills in my pockets, I started venturing to more places, finally able to afford the finer things in dining life. And when I began to lose my vision, my appreciation for the sense of taste grew exponentially. Traveling has obviously become more of a burden now that I cannot see, and I often couldn’t care less about sightseeing, but trying indigenous foods of other cultures? I’m on that like white on rice.
And how else does one experience true foods of a country than by eating at street vendors? That’s where you spend the least money for the most authentic (and often, tastiest) delicacies. And thus is born my/our love for food trucks. It gives us a sense of adventure, like we are in the middle of Copenhagen instead of just plain old Houston. (Or, rather, Mumbai since that’s probably closer in climate.)
So the point of this whole long-winded post was to inform you that Houston will host the first food truck festival on a HCC campus in mid-May. Tickets ($16 for adults and includes $5 of concession vouchers) are limited, so get yours now. You can bet I’ll be blogging about it after the fact. Bon appetit!
Who doesn’t love brunch? What’s not to like about eggs and such savory delicacies melting in your mouth at the perfect time of day when it’s not too early that you’re rejuvenated and not too late that you still have a whole fresh day ahead of you? My friend, Teresa, loves brunch, and she told us about the yummy spread offered every weekend (11 AM to 3 PM on Saturdays and 10 AM to 3 PM on Sundays). I keep hearing from other friends that the brunch at Hugo’s is also phenomenal and being that Backstreet Cafe is their sister restaurant, I had to try the brunch for myself. But first, a little descriptive story behind the restaurant…
Backstreet Cafe first opened its doors in 1983 as a burger joint but has since become a fancy diner serving fine foods in an intimate atmosphere. When I say intimate, I don’t necessarily mean quiet and dark–our brunch experience was far from that with the noisy bustling of the staff through the enclosed patio’s French doors–but I mean it’s cozy. My husband describes it as a sort of French country, beachside cafe. Just the kind of place I’d love to dine in; if only I could see! The restaurant is nestled inside a 30-year-old house in the River Oaks district and while I’ve only been here for brunch, I’d definitely want to return to try their other menus.
The special that day: ham & gruyere crepes...ooh la la!
Of course, now on to the important part: the FOOD. John ordered the Backstreet Benedict ($14), their rendition of the classic eggs Benedict: two poached eggs atop cheddar chive biscuits under a slather of jalapeno hollandaise sauce with Canadian bacon and grits. Teresa and I had the special which were ham and gruyere crepes. We thought it was really good although Houston Press bloggers called it secondary to the lobster sandwich. (I’ll have to try that next time–perhaps a gourmet lobster roll?)
Service was prompt and courteous, and we had a good time with our small group. I’m sure Easter will be crazy so maybe make reservations today.
The last time I blogged about my Braille learning experience, I had just attended a little graduation ceremony which denoted that I finished grade one of Braille otherwise known as uncontracted Braille. Shortly thereafter, I was on my way to learning contracted Braille (grade two), and boy, is there a lot to learn (read: memorize) in contracted Braille! I finished the second book in my Braille program and borrowed a novel from the National Library Service in order to practice reading but I kept coming across symbols that I didn’t recognize. I called my Braille teacher, and it turned out there is a third book to the Braille series, and that he would have to special-order it for me. Apparently, there wasn’t a single copy in the office because nobody had gotten as far as the third book yet in this fairly new Braille method. I had to laugh: to think I am an overachieving nerd in all academic aspects of life.
In contracted Braille, every letter not only stands for a word when written by itself, but there are also all other sorts of symbols that stand for groups of letters, e.g. “-ment,” “-sion,” “-tion,” “there,” “where,” and so on. It’s easily self-teachable since each subsequent lesson builds upon the previous lessons, but there are just so many darn things to memorize!
I just got to the end of all my lessons recently, and it felt really good. It seems like all I want to do lately is read Braille. I guess I really do love reading. I missed it, and I didn’t even know it until I started doing it again. Braille is something one has to practice daily or else lose it very quickly. Now I’m on to attempting The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler all in Braille. The novel comes in three four-inch binders. Wish me luck.
Did I ever tell you I love my iPhone? I got the iPhone 3GS in December 2009 after John discovered that it is the most accessible phone for blind users. With Apple’s incredible VoiceOver feature that reads aloud practically everything on the iPhone (and other Apple products such as the Mac computers and iPads), I can virtually do everything a sighted person can do on their iPhone. For example, I can now send text messages, have text messages read aloud to me, check and reply to emails, find a certain podcast in my iPod app, check the weather, etc., because the VoiceOver function will orate everything to me.
In a recent post, I complained about the U.S. currency bringing an unfair disadvantage to the blind; the identical size of every denomination made it impossible for the vision-impaired to discern between different bills. Why, I said, could the U.S. not follow other countries’ examples and issue ddifferent sized bills?
Well, it seems that LookTel, a company that promotes independent living for the blind with their mobile object recognition and remote assistance solutions, has come up with a phone app that will solve the dilemma for blind users. Introducing the LookTel Money Reader. Featuring LookTel’s patented and proprietary object recognition technology, currency can be instantly recognized in real time using the mobile phone’s camera. The real time function aids in getting information at our fingertips quickly without having to capture the bill’s image by taking a photo and waiting to get data returned. Just by holding the currency and hovering the phone camera a few inches away from the currency’s surface with the Money Reader app open (and thus activated), a calm woman’s voice will, within seconds, tell you which denomination you’ve got in your hands. The app doesn’t require an internet connection so you can read your currency anywhere, any time, as long as you’ve got some cash and the app.
My friend, Jade, originally told me about this product but at the time, it was not yet available on iPhones. Then a few weeks ago, John told me it was on the iPhone, and you can bet I was on that like white on rice. I downloaded the app on my iPhone for $1.99 and tested it out. Indeed it is pretty savvy and could recognize $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100 bills in a matter of seconds. (Yes, I actually had a $2 bill in my possession from a Lunar New Year many years ago.) Now I no longer have to ask John which bill is which before folding it up into my wallet in different shapes. LookTel is in the midst of coming out with several apps for the visually impaired. Keep a look-out for future posts on their products. Thanks, LookTel, for making my life just a little bit simpler!
For John’s birthday last year, I treated him to a dinner at Feast. By word of mouth, I’d heard that Feast features an exotic menu with locally raised and grown meats and veggies. The point is for the diner to be able to track exactly where it is the food on their plate came from. It was an enjoyable meal and not too pricey–you can even stop in for a cheaper lunch menu. We’ve been meaning to go back, and now’s a better time than any with today’s Living Social deal: for $20, you get $40 worth of food and non-alcoholic beverages at Feast. Located on Westheimer between Taft and Bagby, it is an unassuming little eatery offering great dishes. On Saturday nights, they even cook in the kitchen at Grand Prize Bar a few blocks over on Banks. Treat yourself to some good food, but hurry, the deal ends at the end of the weekend.
Since we are in the throes of crawfish season (which lasts from January to June), I decided to do this post. Crawfish (or crayfish or crawdaddy, as they’re known in other parts of the country) are little shellfish that resemble tiny lobsters. Here in the dirty South, we call them crawfish. They are little “mudbugs” that live in the swamps, and yes, while this sounds disgusting, they are actually delicious when cooked Cajun-style.
First, let’s define Cajun cuisine. Often, it’s confused with Creole cuisine, but there is, in fact, a difference per se. The Creoles were wealthy planters who settled in southern Louisiana with their European chefs, thus it is a food of aristocracy. Using Old World techniques on indigenous ingredients, Creole cuisine was born. Bouillabaisse, native to Provence, gave way to gumbo; the Spanish paella was the basis for jambalaya; and so on.
The Cajuns, on the other hand, descended from the Acadian refugees. They were less aristocratic and more agrarian; they cooked simple “one pot” dishes for mere sustenance. Cajun food is usually characterized by such ingredients as wild game, seafoods, wild vegetables and herbs. Ingredients from nearby swamps, woods, and bayous are typical things found in the Cajun black iron pot.
Today, many Creole and Cajun foods have blended into a melting pot, if you will, of southern Louisiana. One things’ for sure, though: it’s an American cuisine from the South like no other.
A crawfish boil is an event native to Louisiana but over the years has spread to most of the deep South (like my native Houston), and now, it can even be found in California, Colorado, and D.C. But because I’m a Southern girl, I don’t trust eatin’ crawfish nowhere but down he’e. What’s unique and fun about a crawfish boil is the atmosphere. Not only are you grubbin’ on good food, but you do it outside on a picnic table covered with newspaper or butcher paper. You do it over beer. You do it with your bare hands. (Or if you’re prissy like me, with plastic or latex gloves.) Most importantly, you do it with good company–it is NOT to be eaten alone. The crawfish and all the fixin’s are poured straight from the pot onto the middle of the table, and everyone grabs from the steaming pile of awesome goodness.
This recipe is based on one I got from a former coworker who has French roots from southern Louisiana. Whether she’s Creole or Cajun, I have yet to determine, but either way, this recipe is pretty tasty. She and her family do a crawfish boil every year for about a hundred friends and family. I, of course, scaled down the servings and tweaked it a little, but remember that you need to do this with a group. Also, it’s like a half day affair, so make sure you have lots of energy. I haven’t held a crawfish boil myself since 2008 because the purging, cooking, and especially the cleaning up have been too much for this tired soul. But when the best restaurants around town sell crawfish for $7+ per pound, a little DIY is something to consider.
Crazy Cajun crawfish
Recipe: Cajun Crawfish Boil
Summary: From the Melancons of southern Louisiana
30-40 lbs. live crawfish
3 lemons, halved
2.5 tbsp. cayenne pepper
6 med. onions, halved
9 unpeeled garlic heads
1.5 tbsp. minced garlic
2.5 tbsp. Louisiana brand hot sauce
1/2 to 1 lg. pkg. Louisiana brand crab/seafood boil powder
12 oz. cans pineapple slices
10 med. red potatoes
1 lg. pkg. button mushrooms
2 lbs. sausage links
30 sm. frozen corn on the cob
1/2 canister of salt
Crawfish must be purged before cooking to rid the shellfish of dirt and impurities: an hour before cooking, dump live crawfish into a lg. bin and rinse with water. Dump water and repeat. Refill bin with enough water to cover crawfish. Add half the salt canister and stir.
Fill the pot’s basket with crawfish. Place the basket inside the pot and fill pot with water to cover crawfish. Remove basket and note the water level. Dump water and refill pot to the noted water level.
Heat water to rolling boil. Add Louisiana powder, squeezed lemons plus their rinds, minced garlic, hot sauce, cayenne pepper, and pineapple slices plus juice.
Dump crawfish into bin. Rinse 2 more times.
Dump crawfish, potatoes, onion halves, and garlic heads into basket. Hose down.
When water reaches rolling boil, carefully lower basket into pot. Bring back to rolling boil, and then time for 4 min.
After 4 min., turn off fire. Add corn, sausages, and mushrooms. Let stand for at least 20 min. The longer it soaks, the spicier the batch.
Cook the crawfish outdoors using the same pot, basket, and propane burner used for deep-fried turkey.
Many people say the larger the better, but I like medium-sized crawfish best because: (1) they’re easier to peel, and (2) they soak up the spices better.
Use andouille or boudin sausage for an authentic Cajun boil.
Avoid eating the crawfish with straight tails: they went into the pot already dead and could contain harmful bacteria. Stick with the curled tails.
Dipping sauces: I like to eat my crawfish straight up without any dipping sauces as I prefer to taste the essence of the spices. But many people enjoy it with various condiments. The ones I often see are: (1) salt and pepper with fresh lemon juice; (2) mayo mixed with Sriracha (or rooster) hot sauce; and (3) Creole seasoning mixed with fresh lemon juice.
This recipe should serve approx. 10.
The longer the crawfish soak after turning off the fire, the spicier they will be. Soak for a minimum of 20 min.
My favorite crawfish restaurant in Houston is The Boiling Crab. They seem to use a ton of minced garlic on their crawfish, which I may try to emulate next time by upping my minced garlic by ten or something. If you get to this before I do, let me know how it is.
When I first met Erin and Jenna and their husbands back at the first NMO Patient Day of 2010, we instantly clicked, and over dinner at an Italian eatery, the idea was born. It had started as a joke when my husband, John (who is a tech geek), mentioned that we should start a blog called the Three NMOs, a play off the “Three Amigos.” Well, the name may not have stuck but the blog idea sure did.
And so I introduce to you our NMO Diaries blog, an online space where the three of us ambitious and [relatively] young girls show how we try to live life to the fullest in spite of the Devic’s dianosis. It’s sort of a “I am NMO woman; hear me roar!” type of attitude, and we welcome your readership. The cool thing about it is it will contain a lot of videos (read: vlog) since Erin and Jenna prefer to leave the written word to me. The other cool thing is the name behind the Blind Cook is revealed. (Yikes! Enjoy.
Gourmet India 13155 Westheimer Rd. Houston, TX 77077 281-493-5435
Chicken tikka masala
I first discovered Indian food when my college roommate unpacked tupperwares filled with brightly colored edibles into our mini-fridge in our dorm room. When my roommate missed the comforts of her mama’s home cookin’, all she had to do was pop a tupperware into the microwave, and volia, there was mama’s curried potatoes, cauliflower, spinach, chickpeas…
She was always kind enough to offer me some, and I nibbled only with reserve, feeling guilty for taking her mama’s food. But I enjoyed the bursts of flavor and spices that Indian food had to offer. My palate only grew more adventurous after college when I was finally making my own money and could afford tasting different cuisines. I found myself craving Indian food whenever I thought about my friend’s midnight snacks, the aromatic herbs wafting out from beneath the crack of our door and filling the hallway with delightful pungency.
“Where can I find good Indian food?” I asked another friend once I moved back to Houston post-graduation.
The best Indian food in Houston, she told me, was actually only blocks from my home. Gourmet India, an unassuming restaurant located in an abandoned strip mall where the dollar theater I used to frequent as a child sits as either a modified Bollywood theater or a vacant storefront, cooks up some of the best Indian food I’ve ever had. True, I didn’t grow up with an Indian mama, and true, I’ve probably eaten in less than a dozen south Asian restaurants, but nothing has beat Gourmet India’s dishes. Seriously.
My father only discovered the place recently after my husband and I took him there. It’s a shame that after 20+ years of living in the same house, he only now got to eat at this fine restaurant which is literally down the street.
Naan--flatbread you eat with your right hand (not your left--it's custom)
The dishes I tend to order are:
naan, the popular Indian flatbread used to scoop bites of other dishes into your mouth
saag paneer, a spinach and paneer cheese dish which, due to its creaminess, goes great with naan
chicken tikka masala, another creamy dish made with grilled chicken and tomato sauce
the basmati rice which, here, is made with almonds and peas–a family favorite
All the dishes I’ve gotten here have not been a disappointment. If you prefer to try a little of everything, lunch is often an all-you-can-eat buffet Of course, you can always order my staples; I’m almost positive you won’t be disappointed. I’ve learned to make chicken tikka masala at home (though it’s not as good as Gourmet India’s), but for the life of me, I cannot find a decent saag paneer recipe anywhere. So I’d be grateful if anyone out there could send me one. Anyone?
John loves the snowy mountains while I love the sunny beaches, which is why for each of our respective bachelor/bachelorette trips, we headed to our desired destination: John to Breckenridge and me to Miami. Now that we’re married, we try to appreciate the other’s preference for the outdoors. This meant I had to bundle up and face my most dreaded enemy: the cold.
John fell in love with snowboarding after he went for the first time last year. Before his bachelor trip, he had never seen real snow in his life. Born and raised in Houston, the only kind of “snow” he’d seen was the southeast Texas kind: quick flurries that came about once a decade. But ever since he got a taste of the snow and mountains, he was hooked. And so this year, whether I liked it or not, he was going to plan a trip back to Colorado.
Never in my lifetime did I think I was going to attempt snow sports again. My first ski trip occurred over 15 years ago. I went for only one day with my family. After two runs down the bunny slopes, my uncle assured me I was ready for the green (intermediate) trails. What the hell was he thinking? It took me 2.5 hours to get down those greens. Meanwhile, my cousin lapped me three times on the slopes, a pro at the tender age of six. I ripped a hole in my pants with the ski pole and at one point, even skied straight into the yellow caution tape that roped off the edge of the cliff. It was a horrible experience, and I never wanted to do it again, let alone do it blind.
But that’s exactly what I attempted this time around. I decided it was something I should do not so much for my husband but for myself. I wanted to feel capable. It was something I had to prove to myself.
The Breckenridge Outdoor Educational Center (BOEC) is a neat non-profit facility whose mission is to adapt recreational activities so that all (including those with special needs) can enjoy the outdoors. The instructors from their adaptive ski school are certified to teach and guide those that are blind or paralyzed. Originally, I was going to sign up for snowboarding, but the BOEC advised that boarding was an activity better done if I had 3+ days to spend on the slopes. Because our trip contained only two full days on the slopes, the BOEC folks suggested I try skiing first, that I’d see more success with skiing in only 48 hours. And so I listened to their better judgment and opted for skiing instead despite the nightmare experience I had a decade and a half earlier.
The first half of the first day was spent feeling out what it was like to glide around with a ski on the bottom of my foot. First, I walked around on flat snow with a ski on my left foot only. Then just my right. Finally with both of them on my feet. Then I took the magic carpet/conveyor belt to the top of the bunny slope and practiced the wedge: the wider the wedge, the slower you go. Eventually, I learned to turn and make S’s in the snow. The afternoon was spent on the green trail at Breckenridge, and I actually made it down the entire green without falling! (See my skiing skills in the below video.) Granted I was going 1 mph, but still…I was so proud of myself.
I went against my teacher’s advice the next day and tried to ski Keystone instead of sticking to Breckenridge where, as John says, the greens at Key were like the blues(one level higher than greens) at Breck. The trails were steeper, and I ended up cutting my full day lessons in half to just a morning session because I was utterly exhausted. Not only is the sport already tremendously tiring–your legs are working muscles they don’t normally work–but for me who is a beginner and blind at that, skiing made my entire body tense because I was trying so hard not to fall. In addition to that, the fact that I can’t see to focus on any one spot made me get motion sickness on both the lift and at the bottom of the mountain; whenever I’d stopped, my brain and body still felt like I was moving. Needless to say, concentrating so hard on not falling and not upchucking all over my teacher were enough for me to throw in the towel by lunchtime.
I must say, though, that my instructor, Jeff, and his assisting intern, Brian, were awesome because I only fell twice in the 1.5 days I skied. They made my experience as awesome as it could be, considering I was a turtle on the slopes and had to wear a bright orange bib that said “BLIND SKIER.” At least I wasn’t tied to the end of a rope like a sled dog.
A bonus to the Colorado trip was the reunion I had with Erin and Jenna, the two wonderful young women I met at the NMO Patient Day. In the three months that we’ve known each other, we’ve grown incredibly close, communicating either by phone or email every week, sharing the goings-on in our lives, our day-to-day routines combined with our NMO struggles. It was great to see them again and know that we were all hitting the slopes to prove something to ourselves: that in spite of the obstacles, we indeed can do it!
The BOEC does more than skiing and boarding. During the summer, there are season-appropriate sports like whitewater rafting. Go here to learn more about the BOEC. And you also don’t have to go to Colorado to do adaptive skiing. There are schools all over the U.S. and Canada. Just google your destination along with “adaptive ski school,” and you should be able to find what you’re looking for. And remember, if the Blind can Do it, so can you.
My husband told me about this a few weeks ago but stupid me forgot to blog about it, and now there’s only one day left to support the project. Doh! John and I have each individually pledged money towards the project, and I urge you on behalf of stylish blind people everywhere to do the same.
Because products for the visually impaired are such a niche market, things designed for the blind are often awkward, not well thought out, bulky, less functional. Moreover, they’re downright ugly. Why do the products need to look nice? The consumer is, after all, blind.
Before I lost my vision, like typical young women, I enjoyed looking stylish. I liked shopping for the latest trends. Why should that change after I lost my vision? One of my biggest gripes about being blind is the availability of accessories that are not only nice looking but also functional, e.g. wallets, watches, etc. Well, now there’s a chance for us blind folk to finally don something fashionable. Introducing the Haptica Braille watch, a design concept of a watch that not only looks good but allows for the blind user to check the time without disrupting others. Currently, the only watch that blind people like me can use are talking digital watches, but when I’m in class, checking the time would interrupt the discussion. And sometimes, I’m just counting down the minutes till class ends. Now with this Braille watch, I’d be able to check the time without having to listen to a mechanical voice speak the time aloud.
So please, on behalf of blind people everywhere, support this project today. They need to have $150,000 pledged by Friday, March 4 in order for the concept to enter production.
Feeling my way through food, tasting my way through life. Supporter of the culinary and literary arts—food and words are my creative portals, the means through which I connect with others. Go ahead and leap—come feel and taste with me. Read More