Monthly Archives: February 2011

A Trip Down Memory Lane

This weekend was a trip down memory lane. Howard and I spent a nostalgic afternoon in Central Square, Cambridge, remembering old haunts and discovering some new ones.

The impetus was a trip to the MIT Museum. Doesn’t that sound nerdy? Our alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is celebrating its sesquicentennial, which in English, is its 150th birthday. The university was founded in 1861 by William Barton Rogers. Originally located in Boston’s Back Bay, the campus we know and love didn’t move across the Charles River to Cambridge until 1916.

All good outings require sustenance, so we started the afternoon with lunch at a Chinese restartant that has been in Central Square since the good old days, Mary Chung’s. I can say that very little has changed about the place in over 20 years: the menu, the staff, the décor. Mary herself was there, looking remarkably the same. I started with my favorite Suan La Chow Show, which is a bowl of steamed dumplings over a bed of fresh bean sprouts which sits in a fiery soy sauce. It looks innocuous, but the flavor of the sauce catches up with you and it seems to get spicier and spicier with each bite. It was as good as I remembered. We also shared the flaky scallion pie, which was hot and fried and very tasty. The rest of our lunch wasn’t so great. I don’t know whether we picked wrong, or whether, as a whole, the quality isn’t the same as it used to be.

Next stop, the MIT museum, a few blocks down Mass Ave. We were excited to find out that as alumni, the admission charged was waived. The bulk of the museum space is currently devoted to the sesquicentennial exhibit. Some of it was old history, part of the lore of the institute established well before we set foot on campus. A lot was actually current, highlighting inventions and discoveries in all disciplines that have happened in the years since we were students. Overall, the history was obviously impressive, though the exhibit did make me feel a little inadequate as my own professional achievements in my post-college years have been ordinary and unremarkable.

My favorite part of the museum was a room with about a dozen and a half kinetic sculptures by Arthur Ganson. I wasn’t familiar with his work, but I was entranced. Motors moved pieces of the sculptures around. Some were industrial-looking, with a ball chain or bicycle chain being moved, changing shape infinitely as it was rotated. Howard’s favorite was a star shape that waved yellow shapes around, but periodically, pulled all the yellow shapes to the center to form a miniature yellow chair. However, if you didn’t watch it intently, you couldn’t tell what it was doing. My favorite was called “Alone”. At the base, there was a series of gears that seemed to just go around and around. Above the base was a platform sitting atop a long thin pole and a tiny figure of a person was perched on the platform. You had to watch carefully, but the gears were actually connected to the figure, and slowly shook his head from side to side.

After about an hour, we had exhausted the museum, and it was time for more sustenance. There is a Boston-area bakery called Flour that is getting wider attention since the owner Joanne Chang published a cookbook recently. I have never been able to arrange a Boston-centric outing that included a visit to a Flour location, though I’ve longed to. Well, even though Central Square never used to be anywhere that the word “upscale” would apply to, the newest Flour location opened in Central Square over the summer. We wandered a few more blocks down Mass Ave to check it out. It was a vibrant, hopping place. We picked up a variety of treats (for later): a whoopie-pie like Oreo, a cheddar-scallion scone, and a pair of the famous Sticky Buns.

We also noticed a wine and cheese store next door, Central Bottle. They had a wide assortment of interesting, well-priced wines and a very inviting cheese counter. We couldn’t leave empty-handed. We took home a small wedge of a funky semi-soft washed rind cheese called Red Hudson, from Twin Maple Farm in upstate New York along with a small baguette. There were so many choices, heavily populated by artisan American cheeses. I can’t wait to try some more.

The culmination of the afternoon was a visit to our all-time favorite ice cream shop, Toscanini’s. Toscanini’s is a classic. I’m not even a huge ice cream fan, but I always enjoy a small scoop when we’re in the neighborhood. My favorite was on the list that day, Burnt Caramel, so I had a “microscoop”. Howard had a small hot-fudge sundae with cocoa pudding ice cream. It hit the spot!

Home for dinner, where I made the best cabbage dish I’ve ever had. I try really hard to like cabbage. I’ve made peace with it as slaw, but I’ve struggled to find a cooked use for cabbage that appeals to me. I think the trouble is that so many cooked cabbage dishes are either much too bland or much too vinegary. Anything that resembles sauerkraut is completely unappealing to me.

I am happy to report success on this front. I found a recipe in the new Essential New York Times Cook Book, compiled by the amazing Amanda Hesser for Cabbage and Potato Gratin. All I can say is that there were three of us at dinner Saturday night and the dish was scraped clean. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I can’t wait to make it again. Try it yourself, you’ll love it!

Cabbage and Potato Gratin with Mustard Bread Crumbs
Adapted from Essential New York Times Cook Book
Serves 4 to 6

2 Tbsp canola oil
2 oz pancetta, diced
1 small onion, diced
2 medium-large Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into ½ inch pieces (about 1½ cups)
1 small bay leaf
1¼ tsp salt
½ tsp freshly ground pepper
8 cups cabbage, cut into 1-inch squares
½ cup light cream

For Breadcrumbs
2 Tbsp butter
1½ fresh bread scrumbs
1 clove garlic minced
Pinch of salt
Pinch of cayenne
2 tsp Dijon mustard
2 Tbsp chopped Italian (flat) parsley
¾ cup grated Gruyère cheese

Preheat the oven to 425F. In a large sauté pan, heat the oil over medium heat and add the pancetta. Cook about 5 minutes to render some fat. Add the onion and sauté, stirring frequently, until pancetta crisps up and the onion is golden, about 5 minutes. Add the potatoes, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Saute for 2 more minutes. Add the cabbage, and sauté, stirring frequently, until it wilts a little, 5 to 7 minutes.

In the meantime, boil the cream in a small saucepan over high heat, stirring constantly, until reduced by half, about 2 minutes. Pour the cream over the cabbage and stir to mix.

Transfer the cabbage to a shallow 2-quart casserole dish. Cover with foil and bake for 10 minutes.

To make the breadcrumbs: Melt the butter in a skillet over low heat. Add breadcrumbs and sauté until crisp and golden, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from heat and add garlic, salt, cayenne, mustard, and parsley, stirring well to combine.

Sprinkle the gratin with cheese, then with breadcrumbs, and return to the oven, uncovered. Bake until fragrant and bubbling slightly around the edges, about 5 minutes.


French Fridays with Dorie: Short Ribs in Red Wine and Port

So it’s Friday again. Time for a recipe from Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table for French Fridays with Dorie. This week, Short Ribs in Red Wine and Port were on the menu. This was another hearty dish that suited the cold weather.

Short ribs are a relatively new addition to our eating repertoire. Howard has made them several times in the sous-vide contraption he rigged up from old lab parts ordered on eBay. His version is very scientific (that’s what you get when a molecular biologist plays in the kitchen). It involves cooking the browned short ribs, vacuum-sealed with sauce, in a 133-degree Fahrenheit water bath for 72 hours. More on that another time.

Dorie’s version is a low-tech, but equally delicious, version, braised in the oven for a few hours. Short ribs need a slow cook to become tender, but the oven does its magic and the meat become fork tender. It just falls off the bone.

The recipe called for 12 ribs / 9 POUNDS of short ribs to create 6 servings! I’m finding Dorie’s serving sizes to be quite generous. At the market, 8 ribs weighed 4½ pounds, which seemed like enough for our house. I didn’t change anything else in the recipe, just used fewer ribs.

Bella Smells Short Ribs

First, I browned the meat under the broiler. It smelled great, and Bella (the dog) thought so too. Then, I cooked a variety of sauteed vegetables (onions, celery, carrots, garlic, ginger, and parsnips) along with a bouquet garni (parsley, thyme, rosemary, celery leaves, star anise, and bay leaves) in a whole bottle of red wine (I used a bottle of Australian Shiraz) and some ruby port. After I added the meat and covered it with beef broth, the whole dish needed to bake for three hours.

I left Howard in charge, and I went to the movies to get in a pre-Oscar viewing of The Fighter. The movie mostly takes place in the nearby city of Lowell, but the first date scene with Mark Wahlburg and Amy Adams was filmed in the town where I live, Lexington, including a scene in the theatre where I went to see the movie. It was an enjoyable movie. To me, Christian Bale, as the crack-addicted brother, stole the show.

I’m definitely glad I made this dish the day before serving because there was a lot of fat that solidified when it chilled overnight. Chilling made the step of removing the fat quite easy.

I made a celery root and potato puree from another French cookbook I like. In French, it’s called Purée de Pommes de Terre et Céleri-Rave Lyonnaise, which sounds much fancier. It was a perfect match. The earthiness of the vegetable mash complemented the winey sweetness of the ribs.

The only challenge was that I like my mashed vegetables pure and unadulterated by gravy. The sauce for the short ribs was delicious BUT… it pooled in the center of the plate, polluting the puree, at least, to me. I have the same issue at Thanksgiving when my strategy is to separate the turkey from the mashed potatoes by putting the stuffing in between. That way the gravy which I do like on the turkey and stuffing doesn’t touch the potatoes. I came up with an ingenious solution. I ended up putting the sauce in a cup for dipping, which worked out quite well.

There was lots of extra sauce. Never wanting to waste a good thing, we freezed it in ice cube trays for Howard’s next sous-vide short rib concoction or maybe to throw into a soup or stew.

Dorie recommended garnishing the short ribs with a gremolata with garlic, orange zest, and fresh cilantro. I found the gremolata to be sharp and bitter and, though I tried it the first night, I didn’t use it on the leftovers. Without this flourish, the dish had a very “brown” appearance that called out for something to make it prettier. I didn’t bother, but maybe just some chopped cilantro would have done the trick.

I think this just wasn’t the most attractive dish, which might be why the cookbook’s photo for this recipe was of the raw ingredients. I know that when selecting my own photos this week, they just weren’t very appealing. Anyway…

I’m looking forward to reading about what my fellow FFwD bloggers thought about this week’s recipe. Check out their links at French Fridays with Dorie. We don’t post the recipes, but consider getting your own copy of the book, Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table. Maybe you’ll even want to cook along with us on Fridays.

As a bonus, here’s the recipe for my accompanying vegetables, if you’d like to try it yourself.

Purée de Pommes de Terre et Céleri-Rave Lyonnaise
From Marlena Spieler’s The Vegetarian Bistro
Serves 6-8

2 pounds all purpose potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch pieces
2 pounds celery root, peeled and cut into ½-inch pieces
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ stick (4 Tbsp) butter
¼ cup sour cream
Salt & pepper to taste

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the potatoes and celery root to the pot and cook until tender, about 20 minutes.

Drain the vegetables and mash with a potato ricer (or a hand-held masher). Add garlic, butter, and sour cream and stir until everything is combined well. Season to taste with salt and pepper.