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, 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.