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.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Let's give it up for lamb

In one corner, small, lean rib lamb chops from New Zealand. In the other corner, nearly one-inch thick fatty loin lamb chops from the U.S. of A. All pieces of meat are smeared with extra virgin olive oil, salt and freshly ground black pepper. This was no ordinary dinner.

A recent story I wrote for The Boston Globe got me hungry – and curious. I interviewed butchers and restaurateurs about the differences between American produced lamb versus lamb from New Zealand. “Shall I do a taste-test?” I asked my editor, half hoping she’d say no because it would mean more work. She said no, but my curiosity got me cooking.

After a trip to John Dewar’s in Wellesley for the American chops, and a stop at Whole Foods for the New Zealand chops, I settled for indoor grilling. In the perfect world I would have made sure each cut was identical; but in this imperfect world, I took what I could get: ribs from New Zealand, loins from America. Only Freud could make sense of that.

My Dining Companion and I dug in. "This one is sharper,” he said, taking a bite out of the New Zealand chop.

“It’s grass fed,” I explained. It was “sharp” or, as some describe the taste, “gamey”. It was the way lamb should taste, I thought, the way I remember it tasting as a child when I needed a spoonful of mint jelly to go with. Now I closed my eyes, chewed. Sheep grazing on far away fields, gathering the mustiness of the earth. Rich.

“Isn’t that like organic, eating what’s grown?” Dining Companion asked.

“I guess it is,” I said.

“American lamb sometimes eats grass,” I offered, “but mostly grain, like we feed our cattle.”

“That’s no good,” he said. “Sheep don’t normally eat corn.”

“No, they don’t,” I said, cutting into the American lamb chop that was more like a steak in every way: It was thick and juicy, and the taste – if I had closed my eyes I would have been hard-pressed to call it lamb because it tasted very close to beef.

“It’s not just the wool,” my Dining Companion started philosophizing, uncharacteristically, about the animal we were eating. “They really give it up.”

Grilled lamb is best with….asparagus from the U.S., coated in extra virgin olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and grilled. Try this for a sandwich: Mix goat cheese with finely chopped rosemary and roasted red pepper. Smear it on a baguette; slice the lamb, top with lemon-kissed arugula, voila.