Category Archives: Products

Oh How Olive You

Castelvetrano Olives

The beautiful lush green olives you see above are of the Nocellara del Belice variety grown in Castelvetrano, Sicily. I first encountered these at Peasant restaurant where they serve them on the bar in lieu of boring clichéd bar snacks like nuts or pretzels. The stunning bright green color just catches your eye and makes your mouth water. Then you taste it and it’s like a moment of awakening. Unlike any other olive, the Castelvetrano has a fresh green buttery flavor and a meaty, juicy texture. While other olives taste like they are of indeterminate age, the vegetal vibrance of these just exudes freshness. The olives are harvested young and cured in a very light brine. If you are turned off by olives that are too salty or overly assertive in flavor, then you must give Castelvetranos a try. But of course there’s a catch- depending on where you live, they might be pretty hard to find. If you’re in NYC, you can get them from Di Palo’s in Little Italy, currently selling for $7.99/lb. Coincidentally, I ran into David Rosengarten shopping there this past Sunday. I hadn’t seen him since since my birthday dinner at Daisy May’s a few years ago, but it wasn’t surprising to see him at Di Palo’s; foodies all know the best places to shop! Alternatively, you can always stop into Peasant and grab a seat at the bar. They don’t always have Castelvetranos on the bar, but frequently they do. Peasant has great food anyway, so even if they don’t have these glorious olives on the day of your visit, it is still worth the trip. If you’re lucky enough to be there when Vicky High Life is bartending, she can steer you to some of my favorite menu items. But be sure to save room for dessert- their panna cotta and their bread pudding are the best renditions of those classics I’ve ever tasted. Then after dessert if you linger at the bar enjoying your wine, let’s see if you can resist having a few more Castelvetrano olives. My guess is no. 🙂

Happy Feet

I’ve always loved products that are over-engineered. You know, products that are designed to meet lofty standards and survive extreme conditions the likes of which I am not likely to ever encounter. Recently I’ve discovered two products for my feet which fit into this category- Icebreaker socks and Unequal Insoles.

First the socks-
Icebreaker Ultralite Crew Socks

Icebreaker makes a wide array of products from merino wool; everything from underwear to coats. The idea behind all of their products is that merino is an ideal material for clothing that performs well in all weather conditions. In warm environs, the wool wicks moisture away from your body to keep you cool. When it’s cold, the merino keeps you warm, as their website says, “through a molecular process called heat of sorption“. That basically means that when the wool fibers draw moisture from the atmosphere, the process produces heat. It’s just a tiny bit of heat to be sure, but it’s enough that your body feels warmer in wool than in other materials. The merino wool in Icebreaker products is finer, softer and does not itch. And if that’s not enough to sway you, also consider that the material naturally does not retain odors. Their marketing materials say that the record for wearing an Icebreaker product non-stop in severe conditions was 196 days! I don’t know if I believe you can wear anything that long and not have it stink, but that’s the whole point of over-engineered products- you’ll never subject them to what they’re capable of (assuming you shower more than twice a year!), and as long as they perform even close to what they advertise, you’ve got a winner on your hands. These socks are definitely winners. Details such as the fit around the heel and the strength in the toe area are top notch. And best of all, these are the only pair of socks I own which stay snug to the calf so you don’t have to keep pulling them up every hour. Nobody likes socks with poor elastics which continually fall and gather around the ankles like 80’s leg warmers. Get a pair of Icebreakers and put your Flashdance days behind you. Retail price is $16.99 a pair for the Ultralite Crew socks pictured above, but they have a wide range of styles and colors at different prices.

But keeping your feet happy takes more than great socks. The other new product I’ve become a fan of are these Kevlar insoles from Unequal Technologies:

Unequal Insoles

Yes, they’re made with Kevlar, the same material used in bulletproof vests. The revolutionary idea here is that insoles should not just provide cushioning, but actually absorb shock. By using Kevlar to absorb the shock of every step, you’re reducing the amount of impact stress transmitted upward thru your feet, legs and back. These insoles (as well as other Kevlar products) are already being used to great benefit by professional sports teams. So do they work? In a word, yes. Could they be better? Also yes. There are two different pairs of insoles in my picture- the Comfort Insoles on the left and the Sports Insoles on the right. The Comfort ones are thinner and narrower, probably intended for dress shoes. The problem I have with them is the width. I found them a little too narrow so that when inserted into any of my dress shoes, they did not fit snugly up against the sides of the shoe. You could still walk in them and everything felt fine from a comfort standpoint, but it is somewhat annoying when you can feel there’s a gap between the side of the insole and the side of the shoe. The Sports Insoles are wider and fit perfectly in every shoe I tried them in. I would be inclined to wear the Sports Insoles in even my dress shoes, but the slight extra thickness of them would make the fit a bit too tight from top to bottom.

From a performance standpoint though, Unequal Insoles really work. While the insoles feel firmer, not as soft as cheapo drug store insoles like Dr. Scholls, they actually leave your feet feeling better over a longer period of time. I’ve done plenty of walking over the last few days and both the Comfort and the Sports insoles both worked their magic. At first blush, you wouldn’t notice that much of a difference from regular insoles, and in fact each step would probably feel firmer under your feet. But if you were to walk a long distance or perhaps jump and stomp around for a bit, that’s when you would notice and appreciate what the insoles are doing. I guess the best way to describe it is that they dampen any harshness from the impact of each step and it turns out that’s more important than cushioning when it comes to keeping your feet happy. Surprisingly, these insoles also come with a lifetime replacement warranty. The catch is that you can only get one replacement pair per year and you have to pay like $10 for shipping and handling, but still, that’s pretty darn good. Retail for the insoles are $24.99 per pair. Small price to pay for happy feet!

Grand Central In My Living Room

Pixel2Canvas, photo by Michael Wan

My friend and ex-coworker Mike is a really talented photographer. He doesn’t take pictures for a living, but he probably could. Recently he took a picture of Grand Central Terminal that really grabbed me. As someone who has been thru GCT a zillion times, there’s a very familiar feel that the image instantly evokes. It’s the sense of majestic space, and of activity and purpose that always seems to be in the air at Grand Central. But usually our real world experience of the place is frenetic and impersonal. What Mike captures here is the terminal during a relatively quiet time of day. Still with people milling about, each with their own places to go and things to do, but emptier than usual which makes the place feel more like my own. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but it’s kind of like how Boston used to feel to me in the summertime. Since Beantown is such a college city, it had such a different vibe during summertime when school was out. To me, it was like getting the city back to myself during those months, like I was more connected to it. That’s what Mike’s photo captured for me about Grand Central Terminal. And of course there’s the American Flag as a focal point in the image, seemingly watching over the room, lending an air of security, unity and pride.

But enough gushing over the photo. Let’s gush over what’s now hanging on my living room wall!

Living room, canvas by Pixel2Canvas, original image by Michael Wan

Since I loved the photo so much, I really wanted to have it printed to canvas, but the only question was how to go about getting that done. A Google search turned up so many different companies that do this sort of thing that it was hard to settle on one. Thankfully Mike himself had a great recommendation- Pixel2Canvas. While he hadn’t used the service himself, he had heard lots of good things about them from his photography buddies. Now that I have my canvas, I can definitely say, believe the hype, Pixel2Canvas absolutely rocks!

The term for this type of art production is giclée printing. Really it just means it’s a fine art print basically made using an inkjet printer, but giclée sounds so much cooler, doesn’t it? Of course there are all kinds of inkjet printers, inks, canvases, coatings and finishing techniques, so the quality differences from one printing company to another can be quite dramatic. With little experience in this sort of thing, I can’t comment on the technical merits of the printer or ink choices made by Pixel2Canvas, but there are a few things I can point out.

The mounting option I selected was a 1.5 inch gallery wrap. In a gallery wrap, the image is extended around to the sides to create an attractive presentation suitable for hanging without a frame. In order to create the gallery wrap without sacrificing any of the image from the front of the canvas, a digital technique called cloning is employed. Basically that involves copying the parts of the image around the edges in order to add an additional 1.5″ border around the original which looks like the it’s part of the image. One of the cool things about Pixel2Canvas is that they can do this cloning for you, free of charge. Here’s the result:

Pixel2Canvas, side view, original photo by Michael Wan

Pretty nifty, eh? That’s the sort of thing where a fine attention to detail really matters because the mounting has to be done in such a way that when the canvas is stretched, the edges fall precisely on the transition between the original image and the cloned border. As you can see, Pixel2Canvas absolutely nailed it. I love the way it looks from any angle.

Now for the even finer details. Have a look at this closeup of one of the corners of my canvas:

Pixel2Canvas, Gallery Wrapped Corner

Just look at how tightly and cleanly the corner wrapping has been executed. While researching different printing companies, I saw several examples of gallery wraps from other printers that were loose, uneven and just kind of sloppy looking. The way Pixel2Canvas has done things, you can tell how much care they took in the process. The other thing I’m thrilled about is the canvas itself. Notice the texture of the canvas is a much tighter, finer weave than standard art canvases. This is Pixel2Canvas’ Luxe line, and for my taste, it provides a better look for photographic prints. And best of all, it’s actually less expensive than their traditional canvas. This fine 24″x36″ piece of artwork on my wall cost only $160! The only mild gripe I have is that it took a while to have my order fulfilled. From the day I placed the order until I received it was 20 days. I’m sure you can find other printers that will be faster, but you don’t want to sacrifice quality for speed, especially for a gallery wrap where shoddy workmanship will be readily visible.

So thanks to Michael Wan for his amazing photo, and to Pixel2Canvas for their outstanding craftsmanship in bringing his work to life in my living room. I absolutely love it!

Ad Hoc at Home

It was over a year ago that I ate at Ad Hoc in Yountville, CA. It’s one of Thomas Keller’s restaurants, but this one is unique in that there’s no menu and the food is served family-style. Unshackled from having to adhere to a static menu, the chefs are free to feature the best of whatever products are available to them each day. I had such a wonderful meal there so I was incredibly excited when I heard Michael Ruhlman was going to be working with Keller on a cookbook featuring Ad Hoc’s family-style recipes. Well, I’m thrilled to announce that Ad Hoc at Home has just been released and I received my copy this week:

Ad Hoc at Home cookbook

The book is absolutely stunning in every way. The first thing you notice is the heft, weighing in at probably over 3lbs. Visually, it’s the most impressive cookbook I’ve seen since Ruhlman and Keller’s other collaboration, The French Laundry Cookbook. As you can see from the picture above, the photography is so beautiful and vivid that this would make a fine coffee table book. But don’t be fooled by its good looks, this book is meant to be used in the kitchen. Unlike The French Laundry Cookbook which has gorgeous photos but dishes that are too fussy and elaborate for the average home cook, Ad Hoc at Home contains a wealth of practical information, tips and easy, sensible recipes.

As I did an initial skim through the book, I was struck by how many little gems of insight it contained. Not just raw facts and recipes, but also a peek into Keller’s mind and how he thinks about things in the kitchen. Why we should ditch our tongs in favor of palette knives. Why cooking asparagus in water washes out the flavor and what to do about it. Using vinegar as a seasoning tool. Basic categories of techniques home cooks should master. Versatile items to stock your pantry and refrigerator with. Dishes for the home cook’s repertoire which offer possibility for variation and creativity. Even the difference between the two major brands of Kosher salt. There were just so many excellent little a-ha! tidbits and insights.

When you think about it, what do you really want in a cookbook? Some are great as reference books for specific recipes. Others provide great illustrations of technique. Some include valuable little tips. But for me, especially when it comes to books written by great chefs, what I’m looking for are any nuggets of information to help unlock the mysteries of why their cooking better is so much better than mine. Why is it that when I taste a carrot at Charlie Trotters it is practically life-changing, but when I cook one at home it is just a lifeless veg? That’s the sort of thing I’m always in search of, whether it’s from cooking shows, magazines or cookbooks. And you know what? Ad Hoc at Home delivers on all of that and more. Great recipes, clear instructions, gorgeous pictures, helpful tips and even philosophical insights. A cookbook that is every bit as practical and usable as it is gorgeous to look at. Is it the best cookbook ever? As Kanye West might say, “Imma let you finish, but Ad Hoc at Home is one of the greatest cookbooks of all-time!”

Mahjong Couture

So I’ve had a cold for well over a week now and I’m getting sick of it (haha). I haven’t been able to really work out and am starting to feel like a vegetable. I did actually put in seven weak-effort rounds of Bas Rutten’s MMA Workout last Wednesday, but I’m wondering if that exertion might have actually slowed my recovery. Oh well, back to sitting on the couch until I get better I guess.

I did put some of my couch time to good use though. For years I’ve thought about putting together a Cafepress.com storefront to sell mahjong themed t-shirts online. Being sick with nothing else to do, I decided this would be a good time to set it up. But after a little online research I learned that when it comes to print-on-demand websites, Cafepress’ product quality seems to have deteriorated through the years, so I decided to go with Printfection.com instead. After fumbling around trying to teach myself how to use Gimp to create my designs and then figuring out Printfection’s administrative interface through trial and error, I finally got things set up. All told, it took about a day to get things working the way I wanted, but voila, now you have a place to buy my mahjong themed apparel. Here’s one of the designs:

Mahjong Style

I don’t know if I’ll actually ever sell any of these (marketing is not my strong suit), but regardless, going through the exercise of pulling this project together feels like it was a good way to spend my downtime. So while this cold is still kicking my butt, I may not be feeling any better, but at least I’m feeling productive!

The Japanese Have an Edge

My friend Mat just got a sweet new Japanese knife. For the uninitiated, shopping for Japanese knives is intimidating because of the huge range of steel choices, blade shapes and tapers, handle types and manufacturing methods. But for us geeks, researching and deliberating over product minutiae is a hobby in itself, and the more esoteric the product category the better!

I did my research and shopping over five years ago, and these are the pieces I bought:

Japanese knives

From top to bottom we have a Nenox S1 Gyuto (240mm), a Suisin Yanagi (appx. 9.5″ blade), a Suisin Deba (8″), and a Bunmei Deba (5.25″). As you can see, the collection I’ve assembled covers a wide range of functionality- a chef’s knife, a precision slicer, a heavy duty chopper capable of going through bone, and a small general purpose chopper.

Technically I don’t consider the Nenox or the Bunmei to be real Japanese knives; they are really kind of half-Japanese (like Mat, haha). You can tell just by looking at the Nenox that its design, both in blade shape and handle, is that of a western-style chef’s knife. But it is hand made in Japan and its super fine edge appears to be single-sided, as Japanese knives traditionally are. I’m also pretty sure I’ve seen Iron Chef Morimoto with at least one Nenox in his knife kit, so there you go.

The Bunmei is half-Japanese the other way, i.e. its appearance is completely traditional Japanese but it is produced by the same manufacturer and using the same molybdenum/vanadium steel as the ultra-contemporary Global knives you see at your local department store. Since the molybdenum/vanadium steel is more durable, it is a good choice for this knife since the small deba is meant to be a chopping knife that takes a lot of abuse. Think of it as a small knife with a lot of heft, intended for chopping herbs or making ground meat or fish for tartare. That sort of thing requires a vertical chopping action (as opposed to a slicing motion), and consequently you’re repeatedly banging the edge onto your cutting board so a more durable steel is preferable for that application. I would say that the small deba is the most used and abused knife in daily use because I prefer to use a small cutting board whenever possible (for easier cleanup) and when chopping veggies, the little deba is the ideal tool. Where it really is without peer is when it comes to chopping herbs, especially parsely. The heft of the deba allows you to really bang through it and chop things up finely and swiftly. The big slicing/rocking motion you have to use with a chef’s knife just feels less efficient.

If the small deba is the most utilitarian blade type, I would say that the yanagi is least useful since it is primarily a slicer, and for anything you want to slice you can usually just take a chef’s knife to it all the same. The only real advantage I’ve found in using a yanagi is when working with a whole fish fillet, like a side of salmon. With a yanagi, you can run the blade gently over the inner surface of the fillet to feel if there are any pin bones left. You just don’t get that sort of feedback from a big clumsy ol’ chef’s knife. After you’ve used a yanagi to prep fish once, you’ll know what I mean. Trying to go back to a chef’s knife for that task will make you feel about as deft as a village blacksmith. This is probably why the yanagi is ubiquitous amongst sushi chefs.

The large deba is good for butchering where you may need to go through bone and cartilage. This may seem an odd task for Japanese knives which are known to have more delicate edges than their western counterparts, but have a look at the knife from this angle:

Suisin Large Deba

That spine is about 5/16″ thick. The only thing in your knife drawer with that kind of heft would be your meat cleaver and it would not have anything close to the razor edge of this bad boy. This tool is a beast that can also handle precision work.

Anyway, if you’re interested in learning more about Japanese knives, Mat highly recommends the book An Edge in the Kitchen: The Ultimate Guide to Kitchen Knives — How to Buy Them, Keep Them Razor Sharp, and Use Them Like a Pro. There’s so much to learn about this fascinating subject. So you want a cool hobby? Forget stamps, collect Japanese knives!

Keurig Platinum

One of the only things I miss about working in a big office is the endless supply of free coffee. The thought of that first cup of coffee in the morning is what motivated me to get out of bed on time most days, especially during the winter. Now that I spend more time at home every day, I’ve been forced to put a little more thought into my personal coffee practices. Being a single guy without a chronic caffeine addiction, I really only drink one, maybe two cups in a morning, so brewing a full pot of coffee was usually just plain wasteful. Using my french press was ok, but having to muck with a separate coffee grinder and the subsequent cleanup of the press was just a total hassle. So what was my solution? Redeeming some AmEx Rewards points for this baby:

Keurig Platinum

It’s the Keurig Platinum (also cryptically known as the B70 I think, not to be confused with the B60 or B50, though I couldn’t tell you the difference between any of them). This machine uses the same single-serving coffee pods that we used in the old office, so I was already familiar with some of the coffee selections. While there are several different coffee companies licensed to produce these “K-cup” pods, the most common are the ones produced by Green Mountain, and that’s fine by me since they offer a couple of varieties I’ve been really happy with. For the my taste, the only pods worth buying are the ones labeled “Extra Bold”, meaning they are packed with extra grinds so that they produce a stronger cup of coffee. Of these, my favorites are their “Dark Magic” and “Espresso Blend”. But recently I’ve stumbled upon one that I like even more- Newman’s Own Special Blend. It’s apparently a blend of both dark and light roasts which yields a nicely balanced cup o’ joe. Enough dark roast to provide that rich flavor I look for in coffee, while tempered enough to be really easy drinking. No harshness or bitterness, so opting to have an extra cup doesn’t feel like it would be just too much. While it’s not necessarily a sensationally delicious cup of coffee, for everyday drinking, it is pretty darn good.

The best thing about the Keurig is that its reservoir is easy to fill and it heats up in no time flat. It has a timed auto on/off timer feature, but since it heats up to brewing temp in about 2 minutes anyway, that feature seems rather unnecessary. How many people will get out of bed at exactly the same time every day, and of those people, how many will be so caffeine deprived that they need their shot of coffee in under 2 minutes? If you are that much of a coffee junkie, I suggest you keep this machine on your nightstand and just turn it on at the same time you hit snooze on your alarm clock. You might consider checking into rehab while you’re at it. I should point out that you can get pods other than coffee too. There are an assortment of teas which are ok, but particularly nice is the choice of hot cocoa. You know, some mornings you just want the sugar more than the caffeine. But regardless of which pod I choose each day, it’s clear that this Keurig Platinum has become an integral part of my morning routine. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for my second cup…