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.

Friday, December 23, 2011

12-Hours-Left Food Lover Finds for the Holidays

Still not sure what to get your food lover? Don’t panic. PressureKooker has you covered.


“Shucked: Life on a New England Oyster Farm” by Erin Byers Murray (St. Martin’s Press, 2011, $25) is a wonderfully woven memoir about a lifestyle writer turned oyster farmer turned author. Through Byers Murray’s passion we learn about oyster farming at Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury, Mass., follow her through the wicked winters and gracious summers on “the flats”, and taste the “merroir”—the essence of an oyster from where it’s grown—through her salivating descriptions. Fun, moving and delicious read.

“The Apple Lover’s Cookbook” by Amy Traverso (W.W. Norton & Co., 2011, $29.95) is a lovely ode to all the favs we know, from McCoun and McIntosh, to the other 57 varieties of apples we don’t. The handsome hardcover is chock-a-block of apple knowledge, history and 100 great recipes that take you beyond the usual apple pie while offering time-saving techniques—all wonderfully inspiring.

“Wine Lover’s Devotional: 365 Days of Knowledge, Advice and Lore for the Ardent Aficionado” by Jonathon Alsop (Quarry Books, 2010, $19.99) encourages wine lovers to find their own language about something they want to know more about but might be too intimated to ask. The informative, irreverent and entertaining read is also practical with recipes, travel and buying tips.

“Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery + Cafe” by Joanne Chang with Christie Matheson (Chronicle Books, 2010, $35) is for anyone with a sweet tooth, or anyone who can appreciate the art of baking with real butter, sugar and flour, all guided by the insightful, instructional hands of Joanne Chang, who’s built a sweet empire of her own. Go with her motto: “Eat dessert first.”


Two of Boston’s biggest wine events are upon us in the New Year. Give the gift of attending the Boston Wine Expo, a five-day celebration of wine tasting and seminars January 16-22, 2012 at the Seaport World Trade Center and Seaport Hotel. Save $10 per ticket for the Grand Tasting when you purchase them in December.

The other is the 2012 Boston Wine Festival, a three-month long extravaganza of vintner dinners, a jazz brunch, seminars and tastings bookended by an opening reception January 6, 2012 and a closing reception March 30, 2012 at the dazzling waterfront Boston Harbor Hotel. Buy tickets for a reception, a dinner or indulge in a hotel package for an overnight.

Cupcakes and Cocktails: Make adult cupcakes in this cooking class at the Boston Center for Adult Education, January 20, 2012, 6-9 PM. Cosmo or sangria cupcakes, or other seasonal flavors will be part of the menu. Buy two tickets and make it a party ($55 per person, plus $22 for materials).


Cheese lovers will love the Formaggio Kitchen “Cheese of the Month Club”. With membership, you get a taste of cheeses from around the world and a selection of milk types and information on each one for a total weight of one and a half pounds, monthly ($199 for three months; $186 for six months; $541 for a year, all shipping included, at formaggiokitchen.com).

Trust Central Bottle in Cambridge to find three bottles a month that will woo you, if not (hopefully) blow you away. The “Three Bottles a Month” club includes three wines, handpicked by the owners who go out of their way to find wines off the beaten consumer path. ($50/month)

Feel like an outsider obsessed with food? You’re not alone. Become a member of The Culinary Guild of New England and receive discounts to specialty food stores, discounts to cooking classes, plus special invitations to guild-sponsored events like dinners and tastings, and hobnob with other members who are professional cooks, writers and all around food fanatics. Most of all, you’ll feel right at home. ($75 per person, annually/$35 for ages 30 and younger, and 65 and older; http://www.cgne.org).

Cross the velvet ropes and get a membership to MET Back Bay’s Townhouse, an exclusive, elegant club with a separate entrance from the restaurant, MET Back Bay. The $2,500 membership works like a debit card: You pay the fee and spend down your balance by wining, dining, and holding private parties in a townhouse that feels like yours.

“Sexy apron” might seem like an oxymoron until you check out the frilly, halter-style ones from Kitsch'n Glam (found in Paper Source stores, $37.99-$39.99). There’re so fun and fashionable (love the owls!) they can double as a dress. Sort of.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Wine 101

Wine doesn’t need to be intimidating. And more sommeliers or beverage directors at restaurants go out of their way to make you feel comfortable with the wine list. Same thing with a reputable wine store; not only should they welcome your business, but it’s their business to introduce you to great wines and offer customer service by being engaging and helpful.

I’ve put together five tips for quick wine knowledge:

One, befriend your local wine merchant. Find a store you like and frequent it, establishing a relationship with the same person there so they get to know your tastes and they can introduce you to some great stuff. Peter at Marty’s Liquors in Newton is that guy for me.

Two, attend a lot of tastings. Visit your liquor store when they hold them. You’ll only know what you like after you try a lot of wine. And you wouldn’t dream of imbibing it all, would you; there’s always spitting as the professionals do.

(Check out the Boston Wine Expo January 21 & 22, 2012; it's a great opportunity to sample dozens of wines.)

Three, once you find a wine you like focus on the producer--the winery that makes the wine. Get to know them as you would anything you’d have a passion for—where are they located? Where do their grapes come from? You’ll gain confidence through knowledge, and enjoy it all the more.

Four, if you are dining out with a group and are nervous about ordering wine, get the wine list ahead of time and discuss what you’re looking for and your budget with the beverage director. It takes the sweat out of being put on the spot.

Five, take a class at the Boston Wine School with Jonathan Alsop—his down-to-earth, irreverent approach along with his deep knowledge will not only put you at ease but you’ll have fun. Imagine: Wine = fun.

Thanks for listening to "Talk with Francesca" Sunday, November 27th AM-1510. For restaurant recommendations and more recipes, please check back with PressureKooker. If you're looking for the chili recipe, please click here. And keep cooking!

Friday, July 22, 2011

My Private Tour de France

Be forewarned: This blog post is an out-of-the-kitchen experience, though it ends with a mean limeade recipe because there's nothing like an icy lime drink to cool off with this triple-digit heat. The biking? Don't try that at home. I am training for my second PanMass Challenge, a two-day, 192-mile bike ride that raises money for cancer research and to eradicate the disease.

First confession: I’ve learned to love hills, even the straight-up kind. The long, slogging kind, not so much. OK, so I don’t love, love them per se. I find when I’m on them, I might as well surrender. Because I’m not going anywhere but up, and there’s always a down. The key is to keep pedaling, especially when you don’t feel like it.

Second confession: Tour de France rider I am not—while my focus remains on the road ahead, I tend to greet my fellow riders with at least a nod, sometimes a four-finger salute from the handlebar, or an all out Hello. I could’ve missed something, but all the hours watching Alberto Contador pace-lining the Pyrenes on the TV’s Tour de France coverage, he doesn’t give a damn about his fellow riders, not even a nod to establish they exist. Oh, the rudeness of competition.

Many fellow riders, heading in the opposite direction, like to keep their heads down. That’s fine. I’ve clocked it; I can say Hello and keep riding at just about the same pace, sometimes picking up a few seconds—just like when I slip in a sip from my water bottle. Being friendly, I find, pumps me up; not slows me down.

I’m not exactly fast. My 90-mile ride recently, while neither leisure nor a race, cost me seven hours and 7.26 minutes, not bad for a formerly chubby-legged girl who had a hard time finding a sport to call her own. But I am rewarded by enjoying the accomplishment and feeling solid-legged not spent the next day.

And while I’m not racing against anyone except my own time, I have made improvements. One of my first rides in May I clocked 12.3 mph at about 12 miles. My latest 12-mile ride in July? 14.5 mph.

I contribute four things to being better: my own consistent training rides and determination to improve; a few rides with the Charles River Wheelman—a local cycling club, where veteran cyclist Richard taught me the rules of the road, let me draft and find my own cadence, and cheered me on; my boyfriend, Chris, whose peanut butter-and-honey lectures and road-crew support allow me to traverse the tundra; and, most importantly, my mom Demaris, my friends Andrea, Steve, Sarah, Patty and many others whose lives have been interrupted by cancer. Yet, they continue to win their own private Tours de France every day.

So, it’s not about Contador or the mini pelotons I pass—or that, more truthfully, pass me—coming and going along the leafy green roads of MetroWest. It’s the fact that I am able to ride and do, and in the moments of finding beauty in a flowering pink geranium on a windowsill or dodging a chipmunk scampering across the road, I realize this is living. Hills and all.

No-Pressure Limeade

4 Tablespoons sugar

4 Tablespoons hot water

2 limes

1 lemon



Put the sugar in a heat-proof glass measuring cup. Add the hot water and stir vigorously until the liquid turns clear -- this is simple syrup, what bartenders use all the time to sweeten drinks.

Into a large pitcher squeeze the juices of the limes and lemon. Add the simple syrup. Stir. Add two cups cold water and two cups of ice. Stir. Pour into a glass stacked with ice and sip to chill out.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Enough Full

I like halfsies: half a warm chocolate chip cookie split with a friend (I know, that’s generous); half a stick of gum if that’s all you can find at the bottom of your bag; paying half the bill at dinner so it seems like a bargain.

So it is with half pints of beer, half bottles and small pours of wine that often hit the spot for me. I’m a lightweight, but I also enjoy a beer with my burger, a Sauvignon Blanc at the bar, a few sips of a good, deep Cab to carry my steak into the last bite.

Cocktails, that’s another story. As a friend and I recently slurp around the bottom of our naked rocks like kids sucking up the last of a milkshake, our waitress miraculously appears: “Another round, ladies?” Mine is a margarita with salt in a giant bulbous glass. Gone. My friend’s large glass of red sangria disappears as the waitress stands by.

“Do you do halfsies?” I venture. “What?” The waitress asks over the loud ‘80’s rock music. “Do you…can the bartender make half a margarita?” Her wan smile says, “Get me away from these L-O-S-E-R-S!” But she answers politely, “No, I’m sorry. We don’t do that.”

My friend and I nix the round and chat some more, all the while I'm thinking, Your loss, MexicanChainOfConvenience—you could have made another sale. But you blew it.

Usually siding with the “customer is always right”—and in that instance that would be me—I reach out for an expert opinion on the halfsies [fill in your favorite here] cocktail.

Glass More Than Half Full

In a polite, professional manner Alexei Beratis, beverage manager of Forum (opening soon) in Boston’s Back Bay, explains why it would be such a hassle: Bartenders have enough going on than to parse out a quarter of a half an ounce or an eight of a jigger of a drop—while pumping out regular drinks. Then there’s a whole new set of smaller glassware to match the smaller volume to add to the inventory and storage. Cha-ching.

Sure, there’s the hot trend of cocktail flights, wine flights, smaller versions for the sake of tastings, but we’re talking about a purposeful half-cocktail. “If you can be geared up for it, it’s fine,” Beratis says, being kind “—but to get into a seven-component cocktail and scale it down properly…” I get it. Plus, once you hold the Lilliputian drink in your hand, Beratis intimates a reality check. Really? Does it have to be this small?

I know. I don’t have to drink the whole thing and, like buying petite, that doesn’t make the blouse cost less. But this is different. It’s a well-known cliché that great things come in small packages or “less is more”. I’m of that edict when it comes to my cocktails—it’s the quality, not the quantity. It just would be nice to have the option to go smaller without paying full price. I’m not asking for a lot, really; I’m asking for a happy medium.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Great Guac

Rummaging through the Haas avocadoes in the produce department at Roche Bros. in Wellesley, Mass., I try to find at least two dark green ones that have some give. Not many. “It’s nice to see someone else is as picky as I am,” says the woman next to me.

Great guacamole starts with ripe avocadoes, no ands, ifs or butts. Hope all you want, but like a relationship, you never really know until you’re into it how it’s going to turn out. So choose wisely. Too soft and the avocado could be on the verge of rotten; too hard, with no time to ripen, the guacamole is stiff and tasteless as opposed to creamy-ripe avocado goodness.

The avocado should be very dark green to even blackish green, soft when pushed with the thumb, not mushy. Your best bet is to buy firm avocadoes at least three days ahead of when you’ll need them so they have time to ripen. Ripening takes time.

What I also love: avocados ripen quickly when put in a brown bag with other ripe fruits like bananas, apples or tomatoes—apparently the release of ethylene gas from the ripe fruit quickens the ripening process of the avocado. It makes me think of relationships as well: People ripen better when placed with other fruits. We’re happier, too.



2 ripe avocados

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

2 tablespoons cilantro, cleaned and chopped

Juice of 1 lime



2 tablespoons vine-ripe tomato, finely chopped

2 tablespoon red onion, finely chopped


Cut the avocados in half by running a knife down the center. Twist the two halves apart. Peel away the skin and put the avocado in a medium size bowl.

Add garlic, cilantro and lime juice. Mash well with a potato masher. Add a pinch or two of salt. Taste and adjust seasoning, using more lime juice or salt. To jazz it up, add finely chopped tomato and red onion.

Cover the guacamole with plastic wrap so the plastic comes in contact with the guacamole, leaving little room for air, which causes the avocado to turn brown. Keep in refrigerator up to a day. Serve at room temperature with tortilla chips and salsa.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Y Not

I joined the YMCA this morning. After two trips to swim in the pool, paying a la carte, I figured the payoff would come in no time if I just keep it up. Laps.

Remember the Y as a kid? Friday night swims before pizza, or in my case an unfortunate hotdog dinner before a swim; pool parties, the way voices echo as though you’re in a cave. The familiar and strangely comforting smell of chlorine. I’m still working on New Year’s Resolutions. Maybe this is one. After swimming on New Year’s Day, I thought what a feat to swim every day of the new year, 365 days in a row! Already I’ve missed two. Or is that three? Not bad for a just-back-to-the-water gal who used laps to recover from a divorce. It’s been years now since I welcomed a pool back into my life.

The smell of chlorine is still a comfort. I still get that kick in the gut when another swimmer passes me—and I urge my legs to kick faster, my arms to reach further, faster.

Then there’s the locker room banter: “I was very modest,” says the voice of an older woman (in her 70’s?) as I slip out of my workout clothes and into my swimsuit, a fading purple two-piece that will do for now. (It has a skirt.) I can’t see her; I can only hear her. “That’s the way it was in my age—almost to the point where it’s ridiculous.” She adds: “I’m trying to get over it.”

Pre-Swim/Workout Banana Peanut Butter Shake

Before taking to the pool or working out in the morning, I love to sip this energizing shake. Actually, I’d exercise just to drink it. The idea and recipe came from Sarah (I’ll try to find her last name!), a young spunky trainer formerly of Focus Fitness in Boston. I usually drink it about a half hour before my activity or, if I’m crunched for time, en route to the workout.


1 ripe banana, preferably frozen (frozen is great because it tastes like a milk shake)

8 ounces soymilk

1 tablespoon peanut butter

1 teaspoon or more of cinnamon

1 teaspoon vanilla, optional


Break apart the banana and put pieces into a blender. Add soymilk, peanut butter and cinnamon. I usually put little over a teaspoon of cinnamon in. Add vanilla, if you’d like. It makes it slightly sweeter.

Blend until smooth.