Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Kitchen gadgety gift suggestions

My old high-school friend Scott asked for a little advice about purchasing a kitchen gadget for his wife (well, for his kids to give his wife for Mother's Day--three kids, three gadgets, lucky woman) and since I lost his e-mail address somehow (I thought my e-mail program automatically copied addressees into my contacts list but apparently not...Oops) and figure there may be some other folks looking to please a kitchen-gadget obsessed woman on Sunday May 16th, here are a few recommendations.

These are pretty simple things, folks. I have plenty of stuff that takes up a lot of room in the kitchen and gets used once or twice a year.

Here are some of my favorites:
A Microplane zester. These are the best citrus zesters/nutmeg graters/Parmesan cheese shredders bar none. The Parmesan in particular ends up so fine and light it is like eating Parmesan clouds.

Make sure you get the one with the handle. As the blade easily removes the top most layer of skin of a lemon, so it will remove the top most layer of skin of a human. And if you plan to have your toddler present this to the fortunate woman (seeing a lethal object in the hands of a baby is always a fine way to get mom's attention) wrap the blade part for God's sake and make sure she knows to unwrap it carefully! Mother's Day + Emergency Room = No Fun

An Oxo Mixing bowl. I know, you already have mixing bowls. I have two stainless steel, and a set of those fun glass ones that fit inside each other and range in volume from about a tablespoon to big enough to bathe a reasonable sized infant. And I use them all. But last year I went out and bought myself one of these bowls for two reasons: 1) It has a spout and as I was (and still am) obsessed with making ice cream I was having a hell of a time transferring custard from the bowl into the small freezer canister of the ice cream maker. Much of the custard would end up on the counter or trickling down the sides of the canister and much swearing would ensue. This bowl's diminutive spout makes it a piece of cake. 2) It has a rubber bottom (sounds kind of kinky--yes?) and a handle which makes this the bowl I reach for when I cook with the kids. Three year olds are very good at stirring. They stir so well that sometimes the bowl flies off the counter. We have a much better chance of having the ingredients stay in the vicinity of the countertop if I use this bowl.

Tongs. You can never have too many pairs of tongs. I am a particular fan of these Robinson self-locking tongs since they only take one hand to release the lock (some tongs require the hand not holding the tongs to reach over and press or pull something to unlock them--usually when I use tongs, my other hand is occupied holding a platter, or on good days, a glass of wine). I only have one pair and since Brian doesn't read this blog (probably to protect his sanity since he may already suspect he married a nut-case and doesn't want further proof) I'm going to have to hint heavily that I need another pair of tongs for Mother's Day. My method will probably involve the use of tongs as a pinching tool to get his attention. I use my tongs pretty much every day and often have to wash them three or four times just to make one meal (after you have used them to, say, put raw chicken on the grill DON'T FOR GOD'S SAKE use them to stack the corn on the cob on a platter without washing them in between! Or buy two or more pairs and save yourself the hassle.)

Silicon spatulas. Do you remember the white rubber spatulas of your youth? Man, did they taste nasty. As a child devoted to licking out the bowl after my mom had made cake or cookie batter I have a real hatred of those damn spatulas. You'd get a lovely lick of say, lemon cake batter, and then the taste of nasty rubber would come through and ruin it. I am happy to say that my children need not suffer the hardships that I endured (cue violins). Silicon spatulas are terrific. The examples pictured at left are by Le Creuset and are reasonably priced and so cheerful in kiwi-green, but it seems everyone makes them these days. In addition to no nasty taste, these spatulas can be used to stir stuff on the stove since they can take heat up to something like 600 degrees. That makes them very useful for getting into the corners of pans (where a wood spoon can't reach) and keeping sauces or custard from sticking.

Here's to hoping that these 4 suggestions are useful--if you happen to already own all of the above, allow me to complement you on your good taste! Or drop me a line and I can always come up with a second tier of fun and/or useful gadgets to recommend (does mom like beer? Get her a Homer Simpson talking beer bottle opener!)

Tuesday, May 02, 2006


I recently finished Allegra Goodman's newest novel, Intuition. I can't quite figure out what it was about the book that made me feel a degree of reserve while reading it. I've read and enjoyed two of her other novels, Kaaterskill Falls, and The Family Markowitz, but I found that the character in this novel about whom I was supposed to care the most, a research scientist named Marion, was a void. I think she was supposed to be the ethical center of a novel that has to do with the politics of scientific research but by the end of the book I still could not picture the woman.

Marion is supposed to love research and two other pivotal characters, Cliff and Robin, come to the realization that the process of research is what they love, rather than the thrill of important results. But despite three characters professing this love, all I felt about the time spent in their laboratory was tedium. It has been a number of years since I spent time with experimental mice, but this did not make me want to rush back to that world.

Time for a big digression here: the year after I graduated from undergrad with a degree in English, the only job I could find was working in a lab out in Berkeley that was doing quality assurance potency testing of the Botulism toxin (why they hired me, I'll never know). We got FDA approval while I was there, which meant counting a hell of a lot of mouse bodies on my part to know the kill-rate of different toxicities. Then I got to use regression analysis and graph each batch. Eventually this toxin was used to help people with eye spasms who were effectively blind and the toxin would paralyze the spasming muscles. It also has been used on people like radio host Diane Rehm whose vocal style is the result of spasms in her vocal chords. But hey, why stop with fluttering eyelids and vocal chords? Right before I left to go back to grad school the wee little company headed by a doctor not entirely unlike the character of Sandy in this book (charismatic, good hearted, rich as shit with the annual staff picnic held at his winery in Napa), was sold to Allergan and TA DA they marketed it as Botox. So if you are curious why say, Nicole Kidman has no facial expression any more, well, thanks in part to my injecting mice in the butt with botulism, she has paralyzed her wrinkle-causing facial muscles.

Ok enough of the Botox primer, back to the book. Goodman has said that the book is about belief and I can see this being nicely developed between the different characters' desires. Cliff wants to believe he can cure breast cancer and thus disregards his faulty data, Robin doesn't believe that Cliff is capable of such a discovery. Kate wants to believe that Cliff is the heroic scientist. And there is a layer of Judaic belief (and doubt) expressed by many of the characters. That's all well and good, but rather than having this exploration of the desire to believe be the focus, I felt that the book turned into a "did he or didn't he" fake his data question? And I just didn't think that question was so interesting--either he did or he didn't but unfortunately I didn't care enough about any of the characters to worry about the repercussions. Don't you really need to care if Marion's lab will come crashing down if it turns out Cliff fudged his data? Most of the people in the lab were so miserable that it felt like more of a blessing when much of it dissolved. Do I think this is the happy ending that Goodman intended? Beats the hell out of me.

And the title--it really comes down to the two main women characters, Marion and Robin, suspecting the men of either intentional or unintentional wrongdoing. I couldn't help thinking that maybe I would care more about their intuition if it wasn't about data.

I can see a lot of what Goodman was trying to do, and this is still a much better written book that many I've read, but did it make scientific research a compelling subject for a non-scientist? I can only say, not for me.