Fun discoveries for your Thursday – favorite kitchen tools, updated recipes, and my latest obsession with BBC Radio’s podcast Desert Island Discs.
Desert Island Discs
I can’t get enough of the online treasure trove of Desert Island Discs – interviews with public figures broadcast weekly on BBC Radio since 1942. Selections from the vast archives are available for free download, and I’ve been glued to the podcast in the car, at my desk, in the kitchen, ever since my friend Nicole turned me on to their existence.
The premise of the interview is that each “castaway” is being banished to a desert island and gets to choose eight recordings to take with them, along with one luxury item (in addition to the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare, which are freebies).
The music selections punctuate an intimate conversation on the life and career of the castaway – from actors, musicians and comedians to politicians, activists and researchers. I find the interviews endlessly fascinating, like great biographies – stories of personal trial, growth and achievement – but in the subjects’ own voices, with interludes of the music they love, all in a compact half hour (the podcasts only feature clips of the music due to rights reasons, so they are shorter than the original BBC programs).
It’s a thrill to hear iconic voices from the past, such as Jimmy Stewart‘s distinctive drawl and Lauren Bacall‘s low purr, not reading lines but talking about their personal journeys. Stewart is all midwestern humility, quietly serving in the Air Force during World War II even after he was a major movie star. And Bacall oozes groomed urbanity, her signature deep voice a product of Hollywood voice training.
It’s humanizing to know that life, unexpected and quirky, happens to us all. It’s a surprise to hear Bill Gates fondly recall hitting dance clubs on rare nights off. And endearing to find that Michael Caine, after living up the playboy life in London, fell for his wife Shakira when he saw her in a Maxwell House Coffee commercial.
Dustin Hoffman is thoughtful, interesting and candid about the career he expected as a short, Jewish character actor and the unpredictably explosive career he actually had as leading man (and lady).
I especially love hearing the music choices of musicians. The contrast between wild child Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and straight-arrow drummer Charlie Watts is intriguing, both musically (Richards more bluesy, Watts more jazzy) and personally (Richards rock-n-roll indulgent, Watts disciplined and tidy). But both of them come off very smart and serious about their work.
A surprising favorite was Marlene Dietrich, who spoke from a completely different age. Born and raised in Berlin in 1901, she began her artistic endeavors in music, then poetry, then stage, and finally film. But she dismisses the suggestion of ambition and presents the journey as plain hard work: “My education was to be a useful human being, and that’s what I’ve tried to be…I was thrown into this business and I tried to do my best, and it was hard work all along the line.”
During World War II, Dietrich renounced her German citizenship and spent years entertaining Allied troops, for which she was later awarded the Medal of Freedom. The interviewer notes, with empathy for these years during which Dietrich supported the war against her home country, “It must have been heartbreaking time for you.” To which Dietrich answers with iron clarity: “It was not…I did what I thought was right, and I did the best I could.” Old school.
On my playlist…so many! Colin Firth, George Clooney, Grace Kelly. Philippe Petit, who walked on the high wire between the Twin Towers. George Michael, Annie Lennox. Stephen Sondheim, Neil Simon. Ricky Gervais, John Cleese. David Cameron, Tony Blair, Desmond Tutu. Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Jacques Cousteau. Twiggy. Maya Angelou. JK Rowling, Rev W Audry (who wrote the Thomas the Tank Engine books, which I read to my kids for years). Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson.
Audio recordings take up very little storage space, and my cache of podcasts make my hours of family shuttle driving more productive, enjoyable and peaceful.
Favorite kitchen tools
Desert Island Discs got me thinking about what luxury I’d take to my desert island. I’m tempted to choose dental floss, but I think more useful for survival would be my favorite $6 paring knife that works for just about everything. Here’s that, along with a few other favorites:
I’m not kidding, the only knives my mother-in-law has in her kitchen are these super-cheap, 4-inch-bladed knives. I used to give her grief about it (how do you carve meat? cut watermelon?), but I’ve become a complete convert. The plastic handle is light and easy to grasp, and the serrated blade stays sharp and cuts through anything. It’s the best-value item in my kitchen, and while I still need my larger knives on occasion, this is the one that never gets put away.
I love the wide, flat blade of this spreader for peanut butter, cream cheese and frosting. The rounded tip makes it a safe and useful tool for kids in the kitchen – its sharp edge is sharp enough for a sheet cake or brownies but not sharp enough to cut any fingers. The spreaders cost $4-5 on Amazon, but if you want to buy multiples, Food Service Warehouse sells them for $0.75 each, plus a flat $7.99 for shipping (a good opportunity to pick up $1 small stainless pitchers for espresso making/milk steaming and $2 lightweight stainless mixing bowls).
I should really toss all the wrong-sized, thick-bladed pancake turners I own, because this one is so superior I never bother using any other. The size is perfect for anything on the stovetop – the blade wide and strong enough to lift and flip pancakes, grilled sandwiches, meat, etc, but also flexible and thin enough to maneuver around whatever else is in the pan. It’s not cheap – $16-18 on Amazon – but worth it for The One.
(In the picture above, you can see the size of the metal spatula in relation to my other favorite tools here. Buying online can be tricky – I have an unexpectedly giant metal spatula in Ohio that would be great for grilling, except I don’t own a grill there.)
I’ve thrown aside my air popper for the Whirley-Pop. Stovetop-cooked popcorn just tastes better, and all you need to add is salt. The air popper is efficient and easy, but the popcorn tastes like styrofoam unless you put on a lot of melted butter. Poured-on butter never distributes evenly, but oil-popped corn has flavor without being at all greasy.
You can make stovetop popcorn in a regular pot, but the hand crank on the Whirley-Pop prevents the popcorn from getting burned, and agitating the corn during cooking makes the popcorn cook up fluffier, too.
Best of all, kettle corn becomes as easy as regular popcorn – just add a little sugar in with the kernels and crank away.
With four kids in the house, the Whirley-Pop has a permanent place on my stovetop – after school we make plain popcorn or kettle, hurricane popcorn or mediterranean. As fast as the microwave, no chemical carcinogens, and perfect every time.
Because I’m busy and boring, I rely on my archive here of favorite recipes. Occasionally I tweak them to add variations/substitutions. Here are some of my latest:
- Mini egg stratas – I always make a big casserole dish of egg, sausage and cheese strata, but I recently scooped the mixture into oven-safe ramekins for baking and loved the result, pictured above. Individual portions are adorable for serving, and they bake faster too.
- Less-fat apple cake: Happily, it turns out the apple snacking cake still tastes great if you substitute applesauce for half the oil.
- Banana chocolate chip pancakes – I added mashed banana and chocolate chips to my favorite flaxseed pancakes (the only pancakes I can eat without getting a lead tummy), and it instantly became our favorite varation.
- Blueberry oatmeal – On a cold morning, frozen blueberries are a welcome taste of summer warmed up with no-cook overnight oatmeal. Wild blueberries, small and flavorful, are the best, and I like adding walnuts too.
Only a lucky few will see Lin-Manuel Miranda star in the groundbreaking musical he created on Broadway, but anyone can snag the Broadway cast recording of Hamilton, released last fall. Lovers of history, or musical theater, or hip hop music will agree the unlikely combination of all three is breathtakingly brilliant. History has never been so alive.
I’m so obsessed I’ve also taken up reading the book that started Miranda on this path: Ron Chernow’s definitive biography of Alexander Hamilton. No Desert Island Discs 30-minute breeze, the book is weighty but worth it. I always find truth more fascinating than fiction, and this is a particularly great story – love! war! birth of a nation! – superbly revealed.
But you don’t need the book – Miranda’s musical packs in the story with minimal artistic license, and biographer Chernow even served as advisor to certify details. Two centuries after Hamilton’s untimely death, the face of the $10 bill is alive once more.