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, 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.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Omi's Spicy Walnuts & It's A New Day Salad

Yesterday (February 5, 2012, Super Bowl XLVI), my salad was a Super Bowl salad. Today, it’s consolation leftovers. Well, not exactly. It’s still a salad, and given it was even a surprise to most Pats fans that we (it’s still we, no divorce) even made it to the Super Bowl, I’m consoled. It’s a new day.

Take my mom, a 76-year-old woman. She was depressed for two minutes after New England lost the game. Then she went like this: " 'Demaris, what are you thinking? Football is a violent game. You just lost your husband, and you've been through two cancers. Get out of your depression,' I said something like that to myself," she told me.

"The whole thing is if you can keep a positive attitude you can get through most anything."

To help kick-start a clean slate and promote a positive attitude, I invented these spicy walnuts. I know I’m not the first person to make spiced nuts. There are many brands out there. But these are pretty kickn’ and so simple to make you barely need a recipe. Now that's positive.

Inspired by the bleu cheese/buffalo heat without-the-wings combo, these nuts are delish in the It’s A New Day Salad with Gorgonzola dressing (See recipe below) or they can disappear on their own. Warning: They can be addictive.

Omi’s Spicy Walnuts

1 cup walnut halves

1/4 cup sugar

1 heaping teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 tablespoons butter, melted

Three shakes of Tabasco sauce

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees F.

Toss all the ingredients in a Ziploc or other plastic bag. Shake until the nuts are well coated. Spread into a shallow pan and bake at 400 for about 8 to 10 minutes or until you start to smell the nuts. Shake them periodically and taste one (but careful, it’s hot, blow on it—I am not responsible if you burn your tongue) to make sure it’s lightly toasted. Monitor the nuts carefully as they get to the end of their baking time; they can go quickly from just rightly toasted to burnt.

Take out of the oven, cool and sprinkle over the salad or serve alone as a party snack.

It’s A New Day Salad

1 small head of iceberg lettuce, leaves washed, dried and chopped

2 handfuls baby carrots

3 celery stalks, chopped

1 pint grape tomatoes, washed & dried

1 whole red pepper, julienned

2 Tablespoons red onion, chopped

Serve with Gorgonzola or bleu cheese dressing

Omi’s spicy walnuts

Note: In Googling It’s A New Day, I discovered that I do not want to link to the Website using the same phrase; on the other hand, I do like the “clean slate” link, which talks about fulfilling career/personal goals.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Simon's Swans...And Other Latte Art

Coffee in Cambridge, Mass. is like chocolate in Paris, France—you got to go for it while you’re there because it’s the right thing to drink/eat. It’s like going to the moon and not meeting the man or going to Fenway and not using the restroom.

It took me a while to get to Simon's Coffee Shop but now I’m hooked and it’s not just because of the caffeine. These are serious coffee people. They buy their coffee from Barismo, a small-batch coffee roaster in Arlington started by former Simon’s baristas. (I love that about Boston. Toss a penny in the Swan Boat Public Garden pond and it doesn’t sink to the bottom—it’s too shallow—it casts off ripples. And not only that, Barismo folks are just about to open dwelltime in Inman Square. Ripple.)

Before adding cream I taste the house coffee, El Bosque (the forest) from Guatemala. It’s balanced, not too acidic, a nice medium roast. My friend calls me over to admire the foam on her latte. “Look!” There’s a swan swirl on top. Think the mark of Zorro or the X in Malcolm X. We think Erick did it, or it could be Jay.

Simon’s is narrow. The coffee bar and counter is on one side, tables and chairs on the other. When we go around 1 p.m. on a Saturday all the seats are taken. There’s a woman with her open laptop, and a man who appears to be waiting for someone or something. Nifty photos hang on the burnt-orange walls.

Jason Rayner (a barista) tells me they all practice “latte art”—swans, rosettes. “All of us can do ‘em,” he says, crediting David Schomer in Seattle, Wash. for starting latte art.

I’m taken with the swan. “Do you do skulls?” I ask the guy with tattoos, feeling self-conscious. “I’ve seen them done,” he says politely.

We take our coffees and leave for chez friend.

Photo courtesy @lvanderpool