If you're a fan or avid watcher of food TV, you might already know something of the cook whose book I'll be reviewing below. The third season of Fox's MASTERCHEF had a fantastic cast full of tremendous talent (even those who washed out early have managed to market themselves well), and the competition was friendly, but as fierce as any you might find. When the smoke cleared though, the last cook standing was none other than Christine Ha, of http://www.theblindcook.com/ .
Yes, you read that right. The Blind Cook. She took down all comers in the MasterChef kitchen without so much as seeing what she was doing.
You might think "oh, they went easy on her because she's blind!"
No one went easy on her. You think Gordon Ramsay goes easy on anyone?
Look at this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jF5u8h_jB4M. A challenge involving crabmeat- she was given a live Dungeness crab to prepare. How many of you can do that at all? Then imagine doing it with your eyes closed! But that's cooking. With enough time and patience, a cook can tweak and taste to success.
What about baking, though? Another challenge with no holding back: Apple Pie. People call par-cooking their crust "blind-baking". If only they knew! If you fancy a real tear jerker, watch the end result of that challenge here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WIGXboHpge0. You've been warned!
But as worthy as the tale might be, this piece isn't about Christine's spectacular performance on MasterChef. It's about the aftermath! One of her well-earned prizes (and one I jealously covet) was her own published cookbook. And she did the prize justice.
Every one of the book's 8 recipe sections has a dozen or so recipes of varying difficulties, with nothing being excessively difficult. The book is designed to be friendly, with approachable, modifiable recipes. Admittedly some of the ingredient lists are lengthy (Look at the simple sounding Green Papaya Salad) but don't let that intimidate you- that's normal for Asian cuisine, and for Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines in particular. Most every recipe is tinged with sound rationale and personal annotation from the author. As a writer herself, she pens a compelling narrative that spurs a good reader on.
Many of my favorite dishes from the book are accompaniments rather than stand-alone dishes- things like her Fish Sauce Vinaigrette, which adds intense flavor and depth to anything you might want to glaze with it. Or her Crab Cocktail (seemingly drawn from that first video above), which brilliantly bests any fear one might have for raw fish. Even something that sounds simple, her Green Papaya Salad, has a wealth of texture and flavor that makes the dish so much more than the sum of its parts. I haven't cooked a clunker yet, even just going straight through the recipes line by line.
If there's a flaw to be found, it's the assumptions the book makes. For a book written by a blind cook (and a home cook at that), I expected recipes that require a bit less specialty equipment. I don't have a mixer with a dough hook (good bye dough-related recipes), nor do I own a mandoline or spiral slicer (sayonara sweet-looking vegetable prep). Granted, I suppose I should (being a trained professional chef who specializes in Asian cuisine) but I tend to not need them, or develop workarounds (my skills with a knife can make up for the latter two, but the point remains). For a cook with a minimalist kitchen, there are a few too many preparations that will fall short of the elegance intended, if they can be confidently done at all. A list of the requisite equipment for a given dish might be worth noting in the margins of one's own copy.
Regarding a visually-challenged release of the cookbook, Christine handles the question personally. Her blog is quoted below:
"...Is my cookbook, Recipes from My Home Kitchen, available in accessible formats for the blind? I had a long discussion ..... about this matter ..... before I’d even written a single recipe down. 'It’s vital that my cookbook is accessible for the visually impaired. That’s a given. I can’t leave my biggest fan base in the dark (nyuk, nyuk),' I’d said.
They looked into all sorts of options, including publishing it in Braille or as an audio book. I was told Brailling quickly became too expensive, and they didn’t want to have to pass that price on to the consumer. I have no doubt, though, that my cookbook will one day be Brailled or recorded and made available for loan via the many resources for text-to-speech for the blind.
...If you purchase a version for the Kindle, Nook, or from iBooks, these versions, I’ve been told, have audio capability so the text can be read aloud on their respective devices. The Kindle even recently came out with new features for the visually impaired. Has anyone tried out any of these accessible formats of my cookbook? Your feedback is welcome. I will pass it along to Rodale." @theblindcook
Being a dedicated paper-copy reader myself, I can't speak for these features. But if you can, speak up!
To sum up, this book speaks of food in a concise and coherent manner. The accompanying storytelling keeps you reading in a way that most cookbooks' flavor text fails to. The recipes work, and there's something for everyone, no matter where you come from or want to eat.
Find it on Amazon here: http://amzn.to/11NiOkQ and let The Blind Cook show you things you've never seen.