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.

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.

Tradition gives Thanksgiving that sense of continuity; it gives families a focal point, helps create community. It's a meal that connects one year to the next, the familiarity with a dish comforting. Everyone has his or her own staple – sweet potato casserole; green bean casserole; a certain way you do mashed potatoes; the way you cook your turkey (Our dad was the turkey chef, butchering it in half, basting it with Crisco, foil tent and all -- a method we employ to this day because I have never -- brined and all -- had a better turkey.); or the stuffing or cranberry sauce. It’s your family’s DNA. Which is why, I suppose, many people like to break with tradition.

I often thought canned, jellied cranberry sauce was exotic. It was so…so clean, a perfectly shaped cylinder, a still life among the chaos. Contained. How come ours didn’t come out so smooth with ridges at the ends?

My mom, Demaris, remembers her mom, Ruth, making cranberry sauce from scratch. “I can remember her screwing the old grinder at the end of the table, a bowl under it,” says Mom. “Now we can do it more easily.”

I am thankful for my blender.

For each package of fresh cranberries, use one navel orange, skin and all. “Raw?” I ask about the cranberries. “Yes.” Sugar to taste, says Mom. 

I tamper with a chromosome: I blanch the cranberries so they become a dark burgundy, get a little soft and lose some of the bitterness yet remain tart. Cut up the orange so your food processor or blender can take it. Spoon in the sugar, keep tasting.

It’s not exotic like the jellied kind, and you can’t cut it with a knife. But the freshness of the tart cranberries, the juicy oranges, the balance of sweetness from the sugar -- it will likely elicit a pleasant surprise at the table. “You made this?!”

TIME: 40 minutes to an hour, depending how much cranberry sauce you make and whether or not you have a blender (like I do) so you have to grind up the cranberries in batches

2 12-ounce packages fresh cranberries
2 navel oranges
1 to 2 cups of sugar
pinch of salt

P   1. Put a 4-quart pot of water onto the stove to boil. Set up an ice bath – that’s a large bowl with some water and lots of ice.
     2. Slice the orange in quarters, then again into smaller pieces. 
     3.  When the water is boiling, put the cranberries in the water. Cook for 1 minute only. Drain the cranberries then dunk them in the ice bath immediately, stir them around so the ice melts and the berries cook down quickly.
      4.  Once cooled down, drain the cranberries.
      5.  In using a food processor, you can go by 1 cup batches; if you’re using a blender use smaller batches to grind the cranberries and oranges. Place a handful of cranberries in the blender squeeze in the juice and add a quarter piece of orange, rind and all. Blend on high until almost pureed. 
      6. Add a heaping tablespoon of sugar with each round of cranberries. 
      7.  Repeat until all the cranberries and orange are ground; repeat to create a course, purred sauce. 
      8. Once all the cranberries and the orange is ground, stir together and add more sugar to taste.

Best made at least a couple hours if not a day or two in advance. It gives time for the flavors to blend. Serve with turkey dinner, great with roast chicken and delishous with mayonnaise on the day-after-Thanksgiving sandwiches.