Dinner at So Kong Dong.

For months, my friend Joann had been saying to me, “When you come to New York, let’s get some tofu stew.”  Generally, I’d make some sort of noncommittal response, but on this last trip I decided the time for stew (sundubu jjigae) had come.  After spending the afternoon at Storm King, Keith and I picked Joann up for a ride into Fort Lee, the New Jersey town nestled against the on-ramp to the George Washington Bridge.

I don’t know how it came about, but Fort Lee (Bergen County in general) has a huge Asian population; in fact, a large percentage are of Korean descent, so it’s no surprise that the city and its neighboring towns are home to several Korean restaurants and Asian markets.  Knowing this, I probably shouldn’t have been taken aback when Joann told me that there would be long line outside of So Kong Dong, her favorite tofu stew restaurant.

“FYI,” she typed in an email, “Saturday night at dinner time… there will be a wait, so earlier the better.”

She wasn’t kidding.

So Kong Dong is set slightly back off of Main Street in Fort Lee; when we arrived right after seven o’clock, the restaurant’s parking lot was full of people killing time before their table number was called.  However, instead of just allowing their patrons to mill about aimlessly, the folks at So Kong Dong circulate menus and take orders; when a party finally does sit down, their food is brought to them mere minutes later.

Once we were seated, the servers unloaded a tray laden with snacks onto our table.  There were several different types of kimchi; I was only able to eat the nabak kimchi, a cold kimchi soup of sorts, as the others were far to hot (not in temperature — the other kind of hot!) for me to handle.  We also received a plate of sprouts called kongnamul, which were dressed in sesame oil and served with scallions and carrots.  I was starving by the time we got to our table, so I inhaled almost everything placed in front of me.

When we had placed our order in the parking lot, I had requested the seafood beef tofu stew; it would be comprised of clams, some shrimp, oyster and dollops of ground beef, all floating in the broth with large chunks of silken tofu ($8.00).  The menu — which is very small, with perhaps only seven or eight listed — lists the five different levels of heat available: not spicy, not too spicy, medium hot, hot and very hot.  I requested “not too spicy,” which Joann said would be “barely pink.”  Both she and Keith chose the “hot” option; their soups were a brilliant fiery red.  Once we had our earthenware bowls in front of us, we each took a raw egg and cracked it into the soup; when it is stirred quickly into the broth it adds a nice, thick texture. 

As you can see from the photo, tofu stew is served steaming hot — so hot, in fact, that Joann and I dumped what was left of our nabak kimchi into empty snack plates and transferred our stew bit by bit to the smaller, cooler bowls.  Keith, on the other hand, bravely ate directly from his massive boiling bowl.  Even after several minutes, the stew remained hot as ever.  I ended up alternating bites of rice with slurps of soup and still found myself perspiring.

I really regret not taking Joann up on her offer of sundubu sooner.  The stew was incredibly hearty, immensely flavorful and the portions ridiculously large.  Afterward, we went to see Tropic Thunder and I could feel my dinner sitting square in the center of my stomach; it was so solid, it was as if a toastily full-bodied cat had curled up under my T-shirt to take a nap.  I can’t think of another dish that could possibly be a better culinary equivalent of the warm and fuzzies than this.

So Kong Dong
130 Main Street
Fort Lee, New Jersey 07024
201.242.0026

So Kong Dong on Urbanspoon

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Petals on the Wind by V.C. Andrews.

After reading V.C. Andrews‘s Flowers in the Attic for book club, I found myself practically dying of curiosity to discover what fate had in store for the surviving Dollanganger children.  I mean, after enduring three years in an attic (not to mention incest, possible rape, poison, religion, tarring, whipping, hair-pulling and Bible-thumping), what could Christopher, Cathy and Carrie possibly have left to face?

A lot, apparently.

Petals on the Wind picks up right where Flowers in the Attic left off, with the three Dollangangers riding a bus en route to Sarasota.  During the trip, the youngest child, Carrie, gets violently ill; a fellow passenger (who, strangely, happens to be a mute) brings them to the home of Dr. Paul Sheffield, for whom she works as a housekeeper.  Of course, Paul decides to adopt the children as his wards once he hears their story, and of course he falls madly in love with Cathy, who each day grows to be more and more beautiful, of course.  Then, of course, there is a seduction (it wouldn’t be V.C. Andrews without a handful sprinkled here and there, as liberally as arsenic on doughnuts) even though Cathy is a teenager and Paul is in his forties.  If that wasn’t enough, there’s a gorgeous (of course) ballet dancer vying for Cathy’s attention, and a brash and possessive attorney, who also happens to be the Dollanganger’s stepfather (of course).  Oh, and Chris is still desperately and sinfully in love with his sister, of course, who, by the end of the book, is in her thirties and the mother of two children by different fathers.  I won’t wreck it for you by saying what their parentage is.

Trust me, I’m not making any of this up.  In fact, when I was waiting for Keith to pick me up this past Friday after work, I was that odd person cackling to herself as she sat outside of Dunkin’ Donuts while reading a book.  How could I not, having read lines such as these?

I was fifteen.  The year was 1960, and it was November.  I wanted everything, needed everything, and I was so terribly afraid I’d never in my life find enough to make up for what I had already lost.  I sat tense, ready to scream if one more bad thing happened.  Like a coiled fuse attached to a time bomb, I knew that sooner or later I would explode and bring down all those who lived in Foxworth Hall!

…I wanted something…fanciful — and a mountain of it!  I wanted all my star-filled dreams of love and romance to be fulfilled — on the stage, where I’d be the world’s most famous prima balleria; nothing less would do!  That would show Momma!

Damn you, Momma!  I hope Foxworth Halls burns to the ground!  I hope you never sleep a comfortable night in that grand swan bed, never again!  I hope your young husband finds a mistress younger and more beautiful than you!  I hope he gives you the hell you deserve!

That’s not even the worst of it.  Like I said, I don’t want to wreck it for you.

On a side note, what is it about V.C. Andrews that gets readers going?  When they heard book club and I were reading Flowers in the Attic, I got three back-to-back emails (or IMs) about the author and related remembrances.

Oh, I was one of the many broads our age obsessed with V.C. Andrews as an early teen. You will be RAVENOUS for the book after Flowers in the Attic even though it’s not as good.  Seriously terrible writing, but it’s kind of like Stephen King — you can’t deny that you’re impressed with the outrageousness of plot.

— Marcella

I never read it, but I remember in seventh grade the girls on the bus would read it and get to really scandalous sections and then read them out loud.  It was awesome.

— Ben

Maybe it was high school that I read Flowers in the Attic. I went through a V.C. Andrews phase, but some of them are pretty disturbing.  I think I saw it on TV once too.  Listen for the woman singing in the opening…  still creeps me out to this day.

— Joann

Anyone else willing to share?

Massachusetts to New York: Soundtrack.

Here’s what Keith and I listened to on the drive down to New York last night — it’s tricky, writing in a moving vehicle, with only the lights of passing cars to guide your pen…

And in case my shaky handwriting is illegible:

Dinner at No. 9 Park.

For a while now, Keith and I had been tossing around restaurant ideas, trying to decide where we wanted to go to celebrate our anniversary.  The list was pretty short, and ultimately we chose Barbara Lynch‘s No. 9 Park.  I remember when I first moved to Boston years and years ago, I would walk past the Park Street brownstone and think about how cozy the diners looked, framed in the restaurant’s warmly-lit windows.

As we walked across the Common, Keith and I chatted about the meal ahead.  Did we want to order à la carte?  Should we try the $65.00 three-course prix-fixe?  Or maybe the seven-course tasting menu for $96.00?  Keith and I both love tasting menus — there’s something to be said about me, the Indecisive Wonder, not having to make any choices whatsoever as to what I want to eat.  And, of course, there’s also the thrill of seeing what exactly a kitchen is capable of, so we determined the tasting was the way to go that night.

Our first course was a lobster gelée, which was served alongside a dollop of paddlefish roe and a combination of avocado and cucumber that had been minced incredibly finely.  The gelée was so enjoyable and had a lovely silken texture, but what I liked best was the contrast of the roe with the avocado and cucumber.  The salty globules offered just the teeniest bit of resistance against the teeth, unlike the miniscule crunchy green squares.  All in all, it was a very subtle and refined introductory plate.

Next up was a dish of Chilean turbot with celeriac,  wax beans and a summer truffle.  Like the gelée before it, this course was very elegant; I found the celeriac in particular to be a memorable ingredient, as it added a really lovely freshness to the entire plate.  Actually, as I was slicing into the fish — which was cooked absolutely perfectly, I should add — I suddenly thought to myself, This is a very feminine dish.  It was simply so delicate and light, that I can’t think of a better word to describe the overall effect.

Earlier in the month I had gotten into a dispute of sorts with a friend who insisted the menu at No. 9 was Italian; I said that No. 9 leaned more towards the French, though I was willing to concede that its cuisine could be described at Mediterranean — which could go so far as to include Italy.  Our third course would definitely fall under the Italian and/or Mediterranean category:  housemade rigatoni  in an  heirloom tomato sauce with a scorched Japanese eggplant and ricotta salata.  This sauce was absolutely delicious; it had a surprising depth and — at the risk of sounding like the fortune teller on the Japanese version of Iron Chef — it tasted like summer.  Actually, it tasted like the most delicious tomato at the height of summer, and was at once comforting and delicious.

Keith and I both chose to get an additional course, which was served midway through the meal.  As there were two options we got both, agreeing to swap plates after we had the chance to sample each one.  This is something Keith and I rarely do; we generally order our own dishes, occasionally tasting the other’s, but it is really uncommon for us to trade altogether like some other dining couples do.

I don’t think it will be a surprise to anyone to read that I was most excited about the artisan foie gras plate.  It was paired with a portion of pommes Maxine, which basically are thinly sliced golden potatoes coated in butter and then baked.  Simple as they sound, they are infinitely more satisfying than words can convey.

If the potatoes were hard to describe, think of the trouble I’m having with the foie.  Yes, it was rich; yes, it was decadent.  The foie was something else as well — it was beautifully textured, and had a mouthfeel so creamy that each piece practically melted on the tongue.  Truly: imagine a soft ice cube, if that’s possible, slowly turning to liquid in your mouth.  That’s the best job I can do in telling you about this amazing foie.

The other optional course, which Keith in particular was very interested in trying, was the prune-stuffed gnocchi.  The gnocchi came with two luscious little bite of foie, which of course was the highlight of the plate for me. The gnocchi themselves weren’t much to my liking; I thought the prunes were too much on the sweet side, and after half a gnocchi, I was ready to swap plates with Keith.  And, just so you know that I’m not too too biased towards the foie, even Keith agreed the prune aspect of the plate was too intensely flavored.

Next was the fifth course, as I am counting the gnocchi and foie count as one together.  The fifth dish threw the No. 9 cuisine debate straight out the window.  We were presented with a plate of crispy pork belly, baby bok choi and kimchi; our server then poured a gorgeous bacon consommé over everything.  Though this dish may sound odd when placed alongside its predeccesors, this pork was just as flavorful.  It was lush and tender, with a skin that crunched like hard candy under my teeth.  The kimchi was of the perfect heat, even for someone like me who admittedly is a wimp when it comes to such things.  Wimp or no, this was flawless.

I wish I could use the word flawless or a synonym to describe our final savory course, but I know that would be a lie.  It was a braised beef brisket with cranberry beans, and I was barely able to eat any of it.  The brisket sat atop a piece or ribeye, and the entire column of meat was saturated with a thick sauce — the flavor of which was too intensely sweet for me to eat.  Come to think of it, I don’t know if it was sweet exactly; in fact, I believe it would be more accurate to describe it as sickly-sweet.  The meat was wonderfully tender, but regardless of this, I was hard-pressed to get more than a few bites in me.  I felt terribly guilty; after all, no one likes to pay any amount of money for an unsatisfactory dish.  I should say that I loved the cranberry beans, which is absolutely true, but my affection for them did not make up for my feelings towards the brisket and ribeye in any way.

In all honesty, I was a bit wary of our first dessert, a perspective I established solely on the description: printed in the menu:  “huckleberry soup — lemon meringue, huckleberry confit.”  (I don’t know the reason why so many restaurants describe their courses like this — the dish’s name, followed by two-to-four components.  It seems pretentious.)  I’ve had a few fruit-based soups lately, and they all seem to be much better in theory than in practice.  I was intruigued by the huckleberries though; until this meal, my only experience with them have been cartoon-based: Huckleberry Hound and Huckleberry Pie.

This was better.

Before I begin discussing the soup, let me first discuss its appearance: gorgeous.  Honestly, could a lovelier claret color exist?  I don’t think so, especially not one that could possibly taste as rich as this.  The huckleberries have a sweetness to them not unlike that of a perfectly-ripe blueberry, though I would say the huckleberry flavor has little to no tartness.  The lemon meringues, which look like little mini marshmallows, complimented the berries fantastically, adding the tiniest bit of acid to the dessert.  I would have loved a few dozen more of them.

Our last dessert, and our final course, was a chocolate and caramel mousse, which was served with an Italian cookie called lingue de gatto, or cat’s tongue.  Our server charmingly shrugged when we raised our eyebrows at the name.

“I have no idea why it’s called that,” he said sheepishly.

Etymology nonwithstanding, the cookie was unremarkable.  As was the mousse, which I found utterly disappointing.  (The same could be said for the caramel, which I promptly scooped off of my plate and onto Keith’s, but that might just be because I’ve never really liked caramel.)  What was quite nice, however, was the single spoonful of sorbet, which in a burst not unlike sunshine concentrated the best flavors of sweet grapefruit.  If the plate had consisted solely of that, I would have been beyond pleased.

As we walked back across the Common, I tried to pinpoint how I felt about the night.  Our cocktails were wonderful, the service was lovely, and the décor was stylish — though more modern than what I expected, and comprised of nothing so noteworthy as to be distinctive.  The food, with the exception of the brisket, had all been executed perfectly; in fact, I think I used the exact word (or variations of, or synonyms) several times as descriptors.  So why was I literally dragging my feet along the pathways, struggling to put a metaphorical finger on my opinion?  I finally realized that my meal had been missing something: excitement.  Not once throughout the evening did I place a forkful into my mouth and think, This is really something.  Certainly, I thought the food was flavorful and at times delicious, but never did I find it innovative or even evocative.  It was solidly-cooked, perfect food…  that was just a little boring.

No. 9 Park
9 Park Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02108
617.742.9991
no9park.com

No. 9 Park on Urbanspoon

CSA 2008, Week Thirteen.

It’s hard to believe summer is almost over, especially since our CSA box has been steadily growing, all but inundating the fridge with its contents.  In fact, I emptied the CSA produce out of the fridge just to see the difference its removal made, and Keith said, “It looks like there’s no food in here.”

This week’s box consisted of the following:

  • Beets
  • Carrots
  • Garden Peach tomatoes
  • Garlic
  • Hot pepper
  • Kale
  • Parsley
  • Onions
  • “Regular” tomatoes
  • Spicy salad mix
  • Sungold cherry tomatoes
  • Watermelon (which was out of the box, if you want to get into specifics.)

I needed to put together a super-fast dinner for Keith and me; it had to get on to the table in fifteen minutes or less.  I had just read an article on CookThink about boiling garlic for pasta; since I had several heads, I decided I would use them all.  Though the CookThink piece indicates the use of unpeeled cloves, I threw in my cloves unpeeled, along with some gemelli.  While the pasta boiled, I halved each of the tiny Sungolds; after I strained the gemelli, I picked out the cloves, which I then mashed into two tablespoons of melted butter.  I tossed everything together — pasta, raw Sungolds, garlic-butter — and added some Parmesan.  Had I any fresh herbs (sage, maybe, or even thyme) I would have given them a rough chop and added them to the mix.  As it was, everything came together nicely for a quick, light dinner, and I’m pleased to say that it took precisely fifteen minutes.  Not bad at all.

Movie Night with Book Club.

My book club has gone through a string of heavy, rewarding and highly-involving books; when it was time to pick the next title, we all were craving something lighter. We still wanted to have the next plot somehow connect to the one that came before it — Thomas Mallon’s Henry and Clara, was, amongst other things, about the relationship between brothers and sisters, so when someone brought up Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews we laughingly agreed that it would be a good fit. We decided not only to read the book, but to also watch the film adaptation. Only two of us had read the novel before (neither Heather nor Melissa could really remember the details), and none of us had seen the movie, so we thought it would be a perfect departure from our reading record, which has included such titles as The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson and I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company by Brian Hall, both densely-written books.

You just try and tell me that my book club isn’t the best ever.

I’m too young to recall the hoopla surrounding the book when it was first published in 1979, but I distinctly remember seeing copies for sale in the book aisle of ShopRite when I was a kid; its cover art completely drew me in, even though I had no idea what the story was about. There was an illustration of a house, and in one of the topmost windows was a cut-out — as if it were an actual window — through which I could see the picture of a blonde girl. (Honestly, I thought it was the coolest thing.) When I flipped open the cover, the second page revealed the blonde girl surrounded by a blond boy and two younger golden-haired children. Behind the four of them was an ominous figure approaching them from out of the shadows; all five had pallid skin, leading me to think at that young age that this was a scary book, possibly about vampires.

I was wrong, on both counts.

There is nothing scary about Flowers in the Attic, except perhaps Andrews’s unnecessarily abundant use of punctuation and her inability to write not only realistic dialogue, but a believable narrative in general. Here’s an example from the very beginning:

“Yes, Momma, I know exactly what you mean,” Christopher piped up. “You did something of which your father disapproved, and so, even though you were included in his will, he had his lawyer write you out instead of thinking twice, and now you won’t inherit any of his worldly goods when he passes on to the great beyond.” He grinned, pleased with himself for knowing more than me. He always had the answers to everything. He had his nose in a book whenever he was in the house. Outside, under the sky, he was just as wild, just as mean as any other kid on the block. But indoors, away from the television, my older brother was a bookworm!

For those of you are unaware, Flowers in the Attic is the story of the four Dollanganger children: Chris, Cathy, Cory and Carrie. At the beginning of the novel, which spans three years, Chris and Cathy are fourteen and twelve respectively, while fraternal twins Cory and Carrie are five. When their father is killed in a car accident, their mother Corrine moves them to her childhood home in Virginia, which isn’t so much a house as it is a sprawling mansion. Upon arrival, the children learn that Corrine’s parents have exiled her from the family for marrying her half-uncle; in order to get back into her father’s good graces — as well as to lay claim to her inheritance — Corrine conspires with her mother to hide the four children in an unused portion of the manor while she sweet-talks her father. The novel gets its title from the playground the Dollanganger children make for themselves beneath the mansion’s eaves, since they are locked into a room with attic access and are forbidden to leave. Over the years, Cathy and Chris become increasingly attracted to each other, even going so far as to, um, consummate their relationship.

It would be a flat-out lie to say that any of us enjoyed the book, though I do know that we all burned through it; Amanda says it was because she just wanted it to be over already. Even so, we were determined to watch the movie version when we met up at Heather’s adorable new house.

Before we assembled ourselves onto the vast sofa (which we kept on referring to as “the party raft”), we had to get down to the serious business of food prep. After all, in our book club, what we eat is just as important as what we read… one could even argue that it’s even more important, in some cases.

While Stephanie rolled out the crust for two pizzas (rosemary, red potato and smoked cheese; eggplant and goat cheese), Heather fried up some squash fritters, which she served alongside a zingy mustard dipping sauce. Darlington had baked some scallion-and-cheese biscuits, Melissa had made a mixed-berry pie and Amanda provided the drinks. Earlier in the week I had volunteered to make a mac and cheese because I had a craving, but I had been hankering for a specific version: my aunt’s.

(My aunt Hasmig is my father’s sister, meaning she spends her time hanging out on the Lebanese and Armenian branches of my family tree. The thing is, I was raised to address her with Tagalog word for aunt, which is Tita. But none of that matters though, because her mac and cheese is neither Armenian nor Filipino. It’s just tasty and, better still, can be eaten with your hands once cooled and cut into squares. This isn’t, of course, to say that you can’t use a fork and knife, but what I want to know is why would you?)

When we were settled on the raft with our heaping plates and overflowing glasses, it was movie time. For a while, we kept shouting out derisive commentary to drown out the dialogue — yes, the film is that awful — but after a time we stopped doing even that. In fact, half of us fell asleep; I think I might have been the first to close my eyes, come to think of it. None of this stopped us from looking up factoids about the film afterwards — Kristy Swanson won the Young Artist Award for Best Young Actress in a Horror or Mystery Motion Picture, the exteriors were shot at Castle Hill in Ipswich — and it’s certainly not going to prevent me from reading the sequels. As terrible as Flowers in the Attic was, I just need to know what happens, the same way I just have to finish an open bag of Milanos: it’s unhealthy, irresistible and very regrettable indeed.

Tita Hasmig’s Mac + Cheese
Makes about twelve portions.

1 pound egg noodles
1 stick butter, plus one quarter
½ cup flour
4 cups milk (I use skim since that is what I drink, but if you can even use cream or half-and-have you want something richer)
1 pound mozzarella cheese
bread crumbs
salt and pepper to taste

  1. Preheat oven to 375°. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and cook egg noodles according package instructions. Drain and set aside.
  2. While noodles cook, melt butter in a large saucepan. Gradually stir flour into melted butter and cook over medium heat; whisk until a roux forms, then stir in milk. Whisk constantly until combined and sauce is free of lumps. Add cheese and salt and pepper; continue to stir until cheese has melted completely.
  3. Grease the bottom and sides of a large Pyrex or oven-proof baking dish, then evenly distribute breadcrumbs across the surface. Add cooked noodles to cheese and stir to combine. Pour noodle and cheese mixture into the baking dish and sprinkle the top with more bread crumbs. Cut the last quarter stick of butter into pieces and scatter across the breadcrumbs. Bake until top browns, about thirty minutes or so. Let cool, and cut into squares.

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick.

What is it that I love so much about tales of a dystopian future?  They are always so bleak and very often totalitarian, and yet I can’t ever get enough.  I’ve got an even stronger fondness for those stories and novels that were not only written in the past, but also take place in what is now the past.  1984, for example, was written in 1949 by George Orwell (the pseudonym of British journalist Eric Arthur Blair).  It’s no wonder, then, that I picked up Philip K. Dick‘s novel Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.

Like 1984 before it, Flow My Tears is the story of a then-future; at the time of its initial publication in 1974, the novel was written about events taking place in 1988.  As a reader, I think this makes the book even more interesting — what would I have thought of it, had I read it then?  Would I have found the story more compelling, or less?

Jason Taverner is a highly popular singer and talk show host…  until one day he is not.  He literally wakes up one morning as an unknown — only he has any idea as to who he is.  He’s without any sort of ID; neither his girlfriend nor his legions of fans have any recollection of him at all; and according to the police, Jason doesn’t exist, not even in their vast network of databases.  In a world where papers are required to move about freely, Jason quickly apprehended for using forgeries and his troubles worsen as the reader is introduced to the Buckman siblings, Felix and Alys.  Felix, a police general, has a tenuous relationship with his more hedonistically-inclined sister, who turns out to be the key to Jason’s misfortune.

It’s difficult to say whether or not Flow My Tears is an easy read.  In once sense, it is easy; Dick’s writing is very accessible to the reader, and his imagination is astonishing.  In another sense, keeping track of who is who and their relation to others tends to be tricky, and I thought piecing together exactly what had happened to Jason was on the confusing side.  Still, in the novel’s slim pages, Dick addresses some intriguing topics — he speaks about celebrity and identity, of course, as well as dissent and the concept of authority, racism, sexuality and gender, genetic modification, and the side-effects and consequences of drug use.  While some subjects are only hinted at, I still find it astonishing, the amount of information Dick is able to cram into a little more than two hundred pages.  I could only dream of being so creative.