Welcome to Naomi Kooker's blog.

At age 6 my mother let me into the kitchen, alone. By seventh grade I was feigning sick to stay home from school, "miraculously" feeling good enough to make baked-stuffed pork chops for dinner. My passion for cooking led me to a job as a sous chef in a Manhattan restaurant and, later, to stand quietly in the corner of (and eventually do one thing in) Restaurant Guy Savoy's kitchen in Paris. I overcame the ultimate cooking challenge when I made butter cream icing over a Bunsen burner at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. It was for a friend's wedding cake, the centerpiece at the reception the next day. It was midnight. With just hours to go, I managed to whip up the icing, then carefully place the last few candied violets onto the cake before the reception. Oh, how grateful I was for that Bunsen burner and the corner bodega that was open 24 hours.

It all worked out in the end. It always does.

Food, cooking and eating are inextricably linked to life. Life is better when good food is involved, and even better when good company is part of the eating.

Thank you for stopping in and being part of a growing dinner party of readers.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Carbs of My Father; Best Blueberry Muffins

My father loved carbohydrates. I think this as I dunk some of my blueberry muffin in my coffee the way he would. The tender, warm muffin tears, releasing a summary of our lives at The Lake: Blueberry picking; the plop of each berry in the large, old metal pot with a thin handle that swung like a bucket; the cobbler mom made in the electric skillet; dad’s deliberate footsteps on the floorboards. Him dunking a wedge of muffin in his coffee, leaning in to catch the drenched sweet in his mouth before it fell to the table. The piece of white silver birthday cake placed on the plate so the icing fell to the right or was it the left? So he could approach it handily. He was left-handed. He attacked the remaining cake batter with a spoon, controlling the silence with every lick of the lips—his fix, his salvation. Now it is my turn.

Using the “Mostly Muffins” book (St. Martin’s Press, 1984), I turned to the blueberry muffins recipe as the foundation; I found when I substituted part of the sugar for brown sugar, the muffins turned out wonderfully moist with a hint of nuttiness that went beyond the walnuts’ inclusion. Enjoy warm out of the oven; they freeze well and make an excellent


1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup old-fashioned rolled oats (preferably not quick oats)
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups fresh or thawed, drained frozen berries*
1/2 cup walnut pieces

            Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Grease or coat with vegetable spray six large muffin cups.
            In a large bowl, stir together flour, oats, 1/2 cup granulated sugar and brown sugar, baking powder and salt. In another bowl, stir together milk, butter, egg and vanilla until well blended. Make well in center of dry ingredients. Add milk mixture and stir slightly. Mash 1/4 cup of the blueberries and add to batter, folding just to combine. Add rest of whole blueberries and walnut pieces with just a few quick strokes. (It’s important not to over-mix muffins, as they will become tough.)
            Spoon batter into prepared muffin tins until nearly full and sprinkle with remaining tablespoon of sugar. Bake in middle oven rack for 20 to 25 minutes or until top of muffin springs back when lightly touched and they are slightly golden brown.
            Place muffin tin on wire rack and cool 5 minutes before removing muffins; remove muffins and finish cooling on rack. Serve warm or cool completely and wrap snugly in aluminum foil and freeze.
            To reheat in the microwave, take muffin out of foil and place on plate in center of microwave. Heat 1 to 2 minutes, reposition muffin and microwave until completely warmed. In oven, heat frozen muffins at 350 degrees F for 15 to 20 minutes.
            *For frozen blueberries, use one 16-ounce bag, thawed and drained.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Killing Me Softly: The Dentist and the Lobster

I get hungry when I go to my dentist. We talk food. I catch him up on the latest restaurant openings; he shares the latest dish he’s whipped up. I trust a dentist who cooks. Just his demeanor when he talks about food and cooking leads me into the inner sanctum of someone who not only loves what he does but also knows how to do it well. Our conversation starts easy, then, the more we talk food, the faster we go, working our taste buds into a lather.

Dr. RonaldKolodziej (Dr. K) talks about my teeth and gums in the same excitable manner.

My last visit revolved around lobsters. “I haven’t steamed a lobster all summer,” he said. “My recipe is inspired by one of my favorite chefs, Jasper White [Summer Shack]. Now with the abundance of high quality garlic infused EVOO (extra virgin olive oil), this recipe is a snap.” He grills the lobsters instead. 

The caveat, of course, is killing the lobster first.

I, too, have killed lobsters, but by boiling them. I’ve also snipped off the faces of squirming soft-shell crabs, cleaned their gills before sautéing. I hated it. Hated it. Hated it. My stomach squirmed. I stomped my feet in protest as though shaking off my actions would make them kinder. It is true. I ate those soft shell crabs with a side of guilt. You want sea-to-sauté? I’m not your gal.

Dr. K ticked off his recipe for grilled lobster: Garlic infused EVOO, lobsters from Market Basket. Market Basket? He explained they are just as good and less expensive. “My knife of choice is a 7-inch Global chef.”

I jotted down notes in my illegible scrawl, bought my lobsters at Roche Bros., and made sure my mother’s gas grill was good to go. If I were going to grill lobster it would be under the fading light of day on Cape Cod—a quintessential New England late summer supper.

My nerves mounted as I thought about the lobsters kicking inside the brown paper bag. I needed support. An online search led me to a Fine Cooking video: “How to kill a lobster”.

“It’s more humane to kill your lobster before cooking,” says the nice, apron-clad young woman while a banded-clawed lobster frantically gropes the air with his spindly legs on the cutting board before her. “That way it dies a quick death.”

First, you freeze the lobsters for 20 minutes to numb them, surely easing the pain and slowing down its movements so, as the woman says, “It’s easier to work with.” A bedtime story is optional.

Second, you need a sharp knife to conduct your business. The idea is you cut into the brain behind the eyes and then down the middle of the lobster, delivering a quick “painless” death.

Here’s where the plan started to go wrong. I didn’t have a 7-inch Global chef’s knife. Though I love my mother dearly, she didn’t have a sharp knife in the house. My father’s fishing knife, once used for gutting his soft-belly catch, was duller than a Latin lecture series.

Impatience and hunger interfered. I pulled the lobsters out of the freezer five minutes early, which was just enough time to freak them out without slowing down anything.

The lobsters flailed against my dull knife. My rant, intended for the lobsters, was a bad attempt at calming myself. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”

Traumatized and exhausted by the botched operation, I took a deep breath and slathered on the olive oil as best I could and placed the lobsters on the grill. I turned their reddening bodies over the sizzling heat without relief.

When we sat down, I said grace. I asked for forgiveness. What we received in their curled garlicky grilled tails was a morsel of gratitude and hard-shelled humbleness I was forced to digest.

Though summer is equated with lobster, after Labor Day and through late November is also a great time to buy lobster. It’s when the shells are hard and there’s more meat per pound. As an alternative to the chill-and-kill method, Chef Corey Marcoux of Brine OysterBar in Newburyport said another method is to hold the lobster upside down so the head touches a hard surface. “Puts them to sleep,” he said.

2 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 lbs. lobster (1 lobster per guest)
Garlic infused EVOO

Purchase the lobsters live. Kill the lobsters before grilling and butterfly in half. Rinse lobsters under cold water. Place them on a baking sheet and dry.

Brush entire lobster with garlic-infused EVOO, season with salt and pepper. Place lobsters on medium grill and tent with an 8-by-12-inch disposable aluminum pan. Grill for about 7 minutes, turning occasionally. Apply more EVOO half way through the cooking. The meat should be opaque when done.

Sides: Serve the lobsters with Tom Colicchio’s creamless creamed corn and my potato salad.
Wine: As Dr. K says, “I’ve been enjoying this recipe with Oregon Pinot Noirs.” The dentist knows he’s talking about.  

Disclaimer: This is not a post for PETA. I’ve taken to heart what it means to be a carnivore, an omnivore, a picador and a metaphor—none of it is easy. But I’m not giving it up. A steak or burger feeds my occasional craving. The salmon sushi is a buttery bite carrying Omega-3s. Giving up beef, chicken, fish or pork in my diet would be like Mario Batali giving up his orange Crocs. It’s not happening.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Summer of Creamless Creamed Corn

Buttery corn kernels on their way to becoming "creamed".
Back in May I interviewed Mr. Tom Colicchio (Craft Restaurants, Top Chef) in Boston. We happened to be at a special screening of Chef, the feature film starring Jon Favreau, who also wrote and directed the comedy. Favreau plays a one-time popular chef (Carl Casper) who loses his creative mojo and finds it on a food truck. Integral to the story is how the chef’s time-strapped career keeps him away from his family. He’s divorced from Inez (Sofia Vergagara) and has a son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), whom he barely spends time with.

After the credits rolled at the end of the movie (thanks to Food and Wine magazine for the screening), Mr. Colicchio graciously answered a few questions. I wanted to know how he liked the movie. “It’s a fun movie,” he said. “It was really important for Jon to get the food right, and I think he did. The food is a great part of the film, you know.”

And then he kept talking, but not just about the food. Colicchio is a dad of three sons—ages 21, 5 and 3. What he loved about the film, he told me, was seeing the relationship between the chef and his son. “When I was a much younger chef, when my 21-year-old was little, there was a lot of time I didn’t get to spend with him,” Mr. Coliccho explained. “And so the story between the father and the son, to me, was really special. It brought a lot of memories back and it’s time you can’t make up.”

In Mr. Colicchio’s first cookbook, Think Like a Chef (Clarkson Potter, 2000), his version of Creamless Creamed Corn is a “modern interpretation” of the creamed corn he loved as a kid. In Craft of Cooking: Notes and Recipes from a Restaurant Kitchen (Clarkson Potter, 2003), he writes: “This is my son, Dante’s, favorite summer dish at Craft, and it’s not hard to figure out why; the white corn, already sweet to begin with, is served in a ‘cream’ derived naturally from puréed corn, further intensifying the corn flavor.”

There was the movie and the lost time between father and son. Then there was the father-and-son shared love of the creamless creamed corn.

When I got home I looked into my vegetable bin and wondered—what bit part could my three ears of week-old corn play? This corn well on its way to becoming cornbread? But behind the taffeta husks were still-juicy kernels. I shucked, sliced kernels off the cobs and made the corn “milk” by pureeing kernels in a blender with a little water. At the stove I sautéed diced onion in butter—adding salt and pepper at every turn, like a chef—and left the heat on low so the onions would become tender, translucent, slowly without browning. The sharp onion muted into a buttery aroma. Ten minutes, that’s all it takes, suggested the recipe.

I added the remaining corn kernels to the buttery onions and kept the flame low.

Patience. Cooking pulls you into a reality sphere, where time slows to the present and all you have to do is show up. You think all might be lost with week-old corn, but it isn’t. Relief came from Mr. Colicchio’s recipe in Craft: “Unlike corn on the cob, which is best eaten straight from the field, corn that is a day or tow old may work even better here, since some of the natural sugars will have converted to starch, allowing for thicker cream.”

After squeezing all the liquid from the puréed corn kernels, I poured the pale yellow corn “milk” into a makeshift double boiler and heated it until it clung to the back of a spoon just like the consistency of heavy cream, the way Mr. Colicchio said it would thicken. “Wow!” “Insane” and “Holy Molly!” I caught myself saying out loud as I stirred the “milk” into a heavy-cream thickness. Mother Nature is never too late.

When I added the thickened “milk” to the corn-onion mixture and stirred, it became creamy like risotto. Instead of using tarragon as the recipe instructed I improvised with weeks-old thyme that had dried and sat crumbled in the bottom of my vegetable bin. I used what I had on hand. The corn tasted of summer even at its end.

“The second time around with my 3-year-old and 5-year-old, I spend more time with them,” said Mr. Colicchio, “because I’m a little more established in my career. I’m not going in the restaurant at 8 in the morning and leaving at 1 o’clock the next morning anymore.”

The father-and-son angle? “I thought that was a great story,” Mr. Coloicchio said. “But, the food scenes were just awesome.”

Creamless Cream Corn from Mr. Colicchio’s Craft of Cooking 
Mr. Colicchio has his own description of this dish—his son, “Dante’s, favorite summer dish at Craft.” I have offered it here verbatim with permission from his publicists. 

Serves 6

10 ears of white corn
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small yellow onion, peeled and diced
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons roughly chopped fresh tarragon

Shuck half of the corn and remove the kernels from the husks[sic]. Place the corn in a blender and discard the cobs and husks. Purée the corn with 1/3 cup water. Press the purée through a fine sieve and reserve.

Shuck the remaining corn, cut the kernels from the cobs, and reserve. Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large, high-sided skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, salt, and pepper and cook until the onion begins to soften, about 10 minutes. Add the reserved corn, salt, and ½ cup of water. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the corn is almost tender, about 7 minutes.

Meanwhile, transfer the strained corn purée [sic] [the intention, I believe, is to transfer the corn “milk” that was extracted from the purée] into a double boiler set over barely simmering water. Cook gently, stirring frequently, until the liquid thickens to the consistency of heavy cream, about 3 minutes. Season the purée with salt and pepper. Remove the corn and onion mixture from the heat and stir in the corn cream. Add the tarragon and adjust the seasoning if necessary with salt and pepper.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Homemade Cranberry Sauce Makes Thanksgiving A Grateful Endeavor

Kellerman Cranberry Sauce       Photo by Naomi Kooker

“You make your own cranberry sauce?” says the lady at the checkout counter, eyeing the fresh cranberries. Yes, I’m last minute shopping the day before Thanksgiving. Her tone of voice is incredulous as though I told her I tan my own hides.

“It’s a family tradition,” I tell her. “My turn this year.”

Normally, it’s Mom. Mom makes it every year. That and the banana bread she swears she doesn’t have a recipe for, says she makes it differently every year, yet it always tastes the same: like Mom’s awesome banana bread.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Home Run Blueberry and Walnut Pancakes

This post was in honor of National Pancake Week earlier this year. In my mind, however, Pancake Week is every week. 

I took my three nephews - David, Michael and Tommy - when there were small to Boston's legendary Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe in the South End. I had just moved out of the apartment I shared with my husband, soon to be Ex. Charlie's was an oasis, and it was a way to thank my nephews for having come to my place to help pack boxes and hang out. 

At Charlie's we shared some precious moments over pancakes (griddlecakes in their lexicon) and serendipity broke out when a famous Red Sox player walked in. You can read the whole post in Where Hash Rules, a delicious narrative about the people - past and present - surrounding this iconic diner, which opened in 1927. 

Where Hash Rules is available at Powell's Books (great indie bookseller based in Oregon), Amazon and other retailers. Buy Where Hash Rules in May and fight childhood cancer: One dollar from each sale will go toward Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation. Oh, and if you try this recipe, let me know how it goes!  

I often bribe my nephews with food. So, when they came to help their city-living aunt pack boxes to move, I rewarded them with breakfast at Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe. Now, picture three brothers—ages 12, 10 and 9-ish—from the ‘burbs in the South End for the first time. Even looking for parking was exciting.
We took our seats at the counter and marveled at the action in the short-order kitchen. We all got pancakes. They came as these giant, steamy discs hanging over the sides of the plates with gobs of melting butter.
The guy at the counter, covered in tattoos, engaged the boys in banter, adding color to the morning as we ate. It was rumored that then Boston Red Sox star shortstop Nomar Garciaparra often came in for breakfast. David, the oldest, joked, “Oh, there he is!” He wasn’t. “Oh, Dave,” the boys teased. We tore into the pancakes, creating gooey goodness sweetened by maple syrup.
Five minutes later, guess who walks in.
Though the cliffhanger can wait, the pancakes cannot.
Home Run Blueberry Pancakes with Walnuts
Thanks to The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, 13th Ed. (by Marion Cunningham, Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), I discovered a foolproof recipe for delicious blueberry pancakes. This version is my own recipe, earning kudos from friends who love the combination of brown-sugar sweetness, walnuts and blueberries.
Serves 4 to 6
1 ¼ cups milk
4 tablespoons melted butter
2 eggs
2 cups flour
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
2 tablespoons sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup blueberries, rinsed and dried; if using frozen blueberries, thaw thoroughly and drain
¼ cup chopped walnuts
In a large mixing bowl lightly beat the milk, melted butter and eggs. In a separate bowl sift the dry ingredients—flour, sugars, baking powder, salt—together until blended. Add the flour mixture to the milk mixture, stirring just to coat the flour. Add the blueberries and the walnuts and gently mix in, be careful not to stir the batter too much or the pancakes will be more tough than fluffy.
Heat butter in a large skillet or griddle over medium-high heat. Once the pan or griddle is hot, spoon about ¼ cup of batter onto the pan to create the pancakes. Make sure you leave room to flip them. Reduce heat to medium. Once bubbles form on top and along the sides, and pancakes are lightly browning on the bottom, they’re ready to flip with a spatula. Brown the other side—about 2 minutes. Remove and keep the pancakes warm in an oven-proof dish in a 200-degree oven. Place a lightly damp, clean dish towel over the pancakes to keep them soft and warm.
Serve with butter and real maple syrup.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Secrets to Heavenly Hot Chocolate with M. Jacques Torres

If there’s anyone who knows how to make exceptional hot chocolate, it’s master pastry chef Jacques Torres—Mr. Chocolate himself.

A few years ago I took my teenage nephews (all three of them) on a Christmas jaunt to New York City. The weekend included a Knicks vs. Bulls game at Madison Square Garden; dinner at Blue Smoke; a stroll down 7th Avenue in Brooklyn (We stayed with a friend there); and a pit stop at Jacques Torres Chocolate in DUMBO before hitting the highway home to Boston.

The last stop made the most lasting impression. The hot chocolate was how I recalled it at Angelina in Paris (sorry, M. Torres, if you find the comparison unfavorable). For an impressionable American, taken there by a Parisian, it was a culinary “Aha!” moment: thick silky creamy chocolate—not cocoa—poured from a pitcher with a bowl of whipped cream to do with what I wanted. It was heaven.

The chocolat chaud at M. Torres’ cozy shop “down under the Brooklyn Bridge” brought me back to Paris and opened my nephews’ eyes to what good chocolate could do if you let it. Truth is, they were so taken aback by its richness they couldn’t finish it. Me? I happily drank the leftovers and zinged eastbound on Interstate 278 toward home.

M. Torres graciously spoke to PressureKooker, recently, imparting the three most important elements in making great hot chocolate:

1. Use good chocolate. “The quality of chocolate is very important,” he says in a lovely French accent. “Do not use cocoa powder—cocoa is a byproduct of chocolate. …It’s not a finished product.” (He special orders chocolate from Belcolade in Belgium.)

2. Boil the milk twice. While there’s no need for cream or anything richer than milk, M. Torres does recommend boiling the milk twice: once before you add the chocolate, then again after you’ve added the chocolate.

3. "Forget the marshmallows—I love marshmallows, but not in hot chocolate,” he says. “I think people put in marshmallows because they’re too lazy to make whipped cream. …Not Chantilly. Chantilly has sugar.” In fact, he prefers unsweetened whipped cream, softly whipped. “The cold cream on the top, once it starts to melt and the hot chocolate, together it’s heaven.”

Heavenly Hot Chocolate for Two

Time: About 5 to 10 minutes to make the whipped cream; five minutes to make the hot chocolate

12 ounces whole milk

4 heaping tablespoons good quality dark chocolate, coarsely chopped (for this recipe, I used Ghirardelli, 60 % cacao bittersweet chocolate

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons water

1 pinch kosher salt

1 pint whole cream, lightly whipped by hand with a whisk

In a medium-sized, thick-bottom saucepan, heat the milk over medium-high heat until it softly comes to a boil.

Once the milk gets frothy, remove the pan from the heat and add the chocolate, whisking quickly until it’s completely melted.

Put the mixture back on the heat and slowly bring to a soft boil. Keep whisking. Add the sugar, water and salt. Whisk for a minute while softly boiling.

Remove saucepan from heat. Pour hot chocolate into pre-warmed mugs (a good way to keep the chocolate hot). Top with whipped cream. Serve immediately, savor slowly.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sundays are for French Toast

There’s nothing like the wafting smell of browning butter, the sizzle of placing your egg-soaked bread in the pan and smelling the mix of cinnamon and warmth as you await your French toast. The first time I made French toast as a kid I confused the process with pancakes. I loved both, and at home would alternate between the two for Saturday breakfast. OK, my mom was really the one who made them.

But when I slept over at a friend’s house, the next morning I offered to make French toast. I was so sure how to make it. I mixed up flour and milk, baking powder and a little oil. That was it, wasn’t it? Hmm. Something didn’t look right, but I didn’t let on that I wasn’t sure. I dipped the bread in the lumpy batter and laid it down in the bed of hot Pam. One flip and it didn’t look like the French toast at home.

I called my mom. “Oh, honey [insert: dumbass]. That’s pancake batter. For French toast it’s just eggs and milk and a little cinnamon.”

For the record, my mom has never called me dumbass.

We scrapped the pan-toast (which to this day might be a bigger hit than chicken and waffles, but we never tried it), and got going on the French part: beating the eggs, adding a dollop of milk, a sprinkle of cinnamon and frying it up. I’m sure it was fine.

Fast forward to high school when I waited tables at a rustic resort in Maine during the summer. Our cook was a groovy dude, Carey. And, for the record, I had a bad crush on Carey. He wore fringed suede boots, touted a thick beard and said “man” a lot. At dinner he and the sous chef fired up white Russians once the mis en place was complete—smart. It didn’t hurt he was a graduate of the CIA. I just didn’t know why someone would hire a spy to cook at a resort.

Then Carey blew my mind. To make French toast he whisked some eggs, added cream, and sprinkled in cinnamon. But he didn’t stop there. He shaved in some fresh nutmeg, a pinch of sugar, a few grains of salt, a dash of vanilla, then, true to his line-cooking expertise, added a healthy tablespoon of rum. That was the closest I was going to get to loving Carey. I’ve always made it the same way since, often without the rum.

Carey’s Sunday French Toast

3 large eggs

1 tablespoon cream or half and half, or whole milk

2 teaspoons cinnamon

3 shaves of fresh nutmeg

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 tablespoon dark rum

1 teaspoon sugar

1 pinch salt


6 slices regular bread, white or whole wheat

Real maple syrup

Whisk all the ingredients, except butter, bread and syrup, together in a shallow bowl.

Over medium-high heat, heat up enough butter to coat the bottom of a large skillet. Once the butter is lightly browned (you can smell it’s nuttiness), soak each piece of bread in the egg mixture and, two at a time, lay them in the skillet to cook. Turn down the heat to medium so you do not burn the bread. Once each side is cooked well, about 2 minutes each, turn them over. You may want to turn them over again to brown each side evenly.

Serve with butter and real maple syrup.

HOSPITALITY NOTE: One way to keep it all warm: warm the plates (provided they are oven proof) in about 150-degree oven. Heat the syrup.