Please don’t mistake my confidence for arrogance, or my arrogance for confidence, or something like that. I was so pleased to have rekindled my love affair with food and the kitchen in general that I felt on top of the world. I truly believed that I could again achieve anything in the kitchen. I was eager to show off my re-established abilities.
Without thinking it through, I called up a group of friends and invited them for an Italian themed dinner feast. I would be cooking alone. My dinner guests were not only food snobs like me: they were Italians themselves. My specialty was Italian food after all. How could it not be perfect? I would not only show off my cooking skills, but they would all be amazed that I could pull it off without the use of my eyes. I would pull out all the stops and make sure to show off like a teenager trying too hard. I would become ‘Il Grande Christophore’ (Christopher the great).
I chose to make Italian meatballs in a homemade tomato sauce served with spaghetti ‘Polpette in salsa di pomodoro con spaghetti’. I had prepared this meal a hundred times before. Surely I could pull off a top Itallian style sauce and make the meal one that all would talk about for years. Everyone was sure to be blown away, or so I hoped.
I was pretty confident that I could puzzle all the ingredients and equipment I needed to prepare my feast unaided. I dug into the freezer compartment of our kitchen fridge and removed a pack of ground beef minced meat as well as one of pork. Judging the weight to be close to 500 grams each, I put the meat into a bowl on the side of the kitchen sink to defrost for the morning. I was still shaking with larger anticipation. Everything would be ok. If I messed it all up, we could just order some pizzas. They would have to forgive a blind guy after all.
That night I lay in bed and pondered the next day’s plan. I ran over everything again and again. The rest of my family snored gently while I hardly slept.
It was midmorning the following day when I started my big feast. I streamed some Italian music on my iPad, to get me in the mood. ‘Il Grande Christophore’ was ready; a character straight out of my dreams not unlike someone from the godfather or a similar mafia boss. Thinking in an Italian accent and singing aloud (poorly), there was no turning back now. It was time to work some magic. The shaking had not gone, it had escalated and my hands were both sweaty and cold.
Into a large stainless steel mixing bowl I broke up the two packs of defrosted meat. I scrounged through the vegetable rack and found some garlic as well as an onion. Next, I smelt my way through the spice bottles until I had found the spices I needed. The flavours were all at my fingertips; it was so exciting.
I toasted the crusts from a loaf of white bread and grated them into the bowl already holding the ground meat. I then grated in one medium sized tomato as well as a peeled onion and two garlic cloves. Into the mix went a couple of hefty pinches of sea salt, a teaspoon of ground black pepper, a good shake of dried oreganum and a small pinch of chilli. Slowly moving around the room, I opened the fridge to feel carefully inside until I found a bag with a massive chunk of ‘parmagiano reggiano’ cheese. I stopped and smelled it for almost a minute. Ahh ‘parmagiano reggiano’, one of my top taste sensations. My recipe required about a quarter cup this finely grated cheese, which was added straight into the mixture. I also roughly cut a few slices for ‘Il Grande Christophore’ to enjoy on the side. The privilege of being the chef… Realising that I had almost forgotten, I fetched a couple of large eggs. Cracking them one at a time into my hand, I let the whites run through the little gaps between my fingers. The yolks were all I needed and I added them to the mix after letting the whites escape down the drain. I hoped that none of the eggshell had found its way into my mix.
The pungent smell and strong taste of the cheese made me feel like a good glass of red wine. Reaching into the wine rack, I selected a bottle of ruby merlot that I knew was there. The sauce would require a couple of glugs. Putting aside all feelings of guilt, I poured myself a big glass. I needed the courage.
I sat back and reflected. What had I forgotten? Had I left some skin on the onion? Did I include all the spices? I thought of how lucky sighted chefs are. I topped up my wine glass and took another huge sip.
Feeling confident from a couple glasses of vino, I reached into the mixing bowl. Blending and pounding with my hands, I worked the mixture over and over again. It was the only way I could know that it was properly combined without my sight. It was a lot easier to form the little meatballs than I thought it would be. They were each a little smaller than a golf ball and rolling them between my palms was simple. I felt relaxed and sure of myself. I put the newly formed meatballs into the fridge so they could firm up before cooking. An old chef’s trick; it keeps them from falling apart when you start to cook them.
Next, I opened the cupboard with all the canned foods. Using the application called ‘TapTapSee’ I scanned the labels. First try found peaches; number two was sweetcorn; on the third attempt I got the chopped and peeled Italian tomatoes that I needed and on my fourth try, I found the crushed tomato puree. I placed these two tins aside with a big grin. I truly appreciated the help this bit of tech offered.
On top of the gas stove, I placed a giant thick-based saucepan. The flames danced to life on the outer edge of the skillet after just a few clicks on the electric ignite button. I added a glug of extra virgin olive oil to the pan and slowly rolled in enough meatballs to cover the base and still give me room to turn them with the tongs. Aromas quickly filled the air as the little balls of Italian flavours simmered. I was grateful for my years of experience. I could smell and hear the simmering balls and knew that after only a minute of rolling around in the olive oil they could be removed. My masterpiece was coming together nicely now. The wine had ‘Il Grande Christophore’ swaying confidently.
Once the meatballs were done, I grated one small red onion and a couple more cloves of garlic directly into the already hot saucepan. I swopped my tongs for a wooden spoon and added yet some more sea salt while continuously stirring. The salt helps to dehydrate the onions and brings out their full flavour without having to cook them away.
My smile was unmistakable now as I swirled around the simmering onions and added the two tins of tomatoes to the brewing saucepan. To the sauce (as well as my now empty glass) I added a good glug of the ruby red merlot. Thirty minutes of simmering later, I ran my finger across the back of the wooden spoon and tasted the juices. It was still a little sharp. Tomatoes are harvested for canning at different times of the year and the sugar content will differ from can to can. It is important as a chef to always taste your food as it is cooking. I added a little sprinkle of sugar to the pot.
Into the thickening sauce, I then added the par-cooked meatballs. I could smell that the flavours were becoming richer as the juices reduced. As a final touch, I threw in some roughly torn fresh basil as I took my last gulp of wine. The bottle was now empty. Where it had all gone I was not sure.
I turned the stove off. ‘Il Grande Christophore’ needed to go and pass out for a few hours, let’s call it a siesta.
Later that night, my friends and family were drawn to the kitchen table by the irresistibly rich aromas. Proudly, I presented my Itallan meatballs in tomato sauce. Served in the traditional way, family style, with fresh crusty ciabatta bread and ‘el dente’ cooked spaghetti. I also shaved some more of that tasty parmagiano cheese to add to our feast. We sat and ate in silence as the wine flowed. It was a sweet silence only interrupted by the satisfied moans and groans of pleasure from my guests.
‘Il Grande Christophore’ was back.