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
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.