1996 Best New Chef Maria Helm Sinskey
1996 Best New Chef Maria Helm Sinskey

Maria Helm Sinskey

F&W Star Chef » See All F&W Chef Superstars Maria Helm Sinskey (an F&W Best New Chef 1996) is the author of two fantastic cookbooks, Family Meals and The Vineyard Kitchen, which features recipes from the Napa winery she runs with her husband, Robert Sinskey. Here, she shares spectacular holiday gifts to make at home, a delicious and colorful cocktail and more. » More Holiday Inspiration from Star Chefs What are your favorite holiday food gifts? Most people appreciate something you make, that they can’t buy. It doesn’t have to be expensive, it just might take more time. But it’s always much more appreciated than candles. Every year I give Capezzana Olio Nuovo with a big chunk of organic Parmigiano-Reggiano. I love Capezzana because it’s so grassy and fresh and has this pepperiness, it just wakes up my senses. I love making salted caramels. It’s so much fun to twist them in waxed paper because it looks professional even though they’re homemade. In late fall I go out into the vineyard with my kids and pick the second harvest, the grapes left behind on the vine. We make a grape confiture, almost like a chutney, with vinegar, wine, the grapes and some warm spices, which we preserve in little bottles. Then if I’m going to somebody’s house for the holidays, I’ll bring a little jar of confiture and a wedge of a cheese. It’s great with fresh goat cheese and Cowgirl Creamery Wagon Wheel cheese. It’s an instant appetizer. We also make gingerbread people, which we decorate with royal icing, making them really ornate, and we put people’s names on them. That’s a great gift when you’re going to someone’s house, especially with kids. What’s your favorite holiday cocktail? A pomegranate cocktail with freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, rye, burnt orange zest and a little simple syrup. I serve it on the rocks because otherwise I get too drunk, but you can serve it many ways depending on your crowd: as a smash on crushed ice, or on big ice cubes, or shaken and served straight-up. We have tons of pomegranates in November and December. It’s so easy to juice one: cut it in half and squeeze it on an electric juicer, like an orange. Let the sediment settle then pour the juice off. You can garnish the drinks with a few pomegranate seeds; my kids love to pick the seeds out. To them they’re like jewels in a box. Can you share one great entertaining tip? Do everything ahead. Set the table, polish the glasses, arrange the barware, and then make a one-pot main course that you have to reheat, like a blanquette de veau. Everyone puts off setting the table, but you can do it a day ahead of time. You can cut flowers and arrange them in a vase a day ahead, too. I always see people freaking out and running around to set the table while they’re trying to cook some elaborate feast like seared steaks and a complicated side. Blanquette de veau, braised beef, or chicken with mini dumplings are all so elegant. You can make them a day ahead and they only get better. Plus in winter, people want something warm and sustaining. Another thing, people love to bring flowers. So always have a vase available, that way you don’t have to leave the party to go get one right when everyone arrives. What’s your most requested recipe? People always ask me about risotto. They want to know how do you make it seasonal. In fall and spring we make mushroom risotto; in the fall and winter we make a winter squash risotto with butternut squash and fried sage. In spring we do prosciutto and peas. People also tell me risotto is hard, it gets lumpy, and they ask me what my tricks are. One thing I do is stir it constantly—not to make it creamy, but to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Stirring helps to release the starch, but starch releases naturally, which also makes the risotto more liable to burn on the bottom, unless you stir. What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?Lulu’s Provençal Table, by Richard Olney. I like the way it’s written, the tone of it, and the stories. And the recipes are great. They’re simple. What’s one technique everyone should know? How to chop an onion evenly and finely, using a sharp knife. The days of rough-cut, hacked onions are over. Cut it vertically with the knife pointing to the root end, then horizontally twice, parallel to the cutting board, then vertically again. The knife just has to be sharp. If it’s dull it doesn’t work. That’s the biggest crime people suffer from, having dull knives. If you have a sharp knife, it’s the easiest thing to do in the world, you just have to practice. And even the best chefs in the world, at one point, even they had to practice. But it’s quite an accomplishment to be able to chop an onion well.1996 Best New Chef Bio Won Best New Chef at: PlumpJack Cafe, San Francisco
After the last grapes have been picked, winery workers gather to break bread and celebrate the vineyard's bounty.
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Two Cheese-Shiitake Beignets
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These cheesy doughnuts are crispy on the outside and delightfully gooey in the center. Cocktail Party Recipes More Mushroom Recipes
Sweet Potato Soufflé
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These mashed sweet potatoes are topped with Gruyère then baked so that the cheese forms a nutty-flavored crust. More Sweet Potato Recipes
Of course Maria Helm Sinskey and her husband, Rob (co-owner of Napa's Robert Sinskey Vineyards), serve their wine at parties. But she also offers refreshing punches like this one, made with tart-sweet pomegranate juice and finished with Prosecco. More Drinks For A Crowd
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These Asian-inspired Cornish hens are simple and elegant, and they allow each guest to have their own small bird. Slideshow:  Main Course Alternatives to Thanksgiving Turkey  
This festive duck roast is stuffed with a delicious sweet-and-sour cherry filling. Slideshow:  Main Course Alternatives to Thanksgiving Turkey 
Of course Maria Helm Sinskey and her husband, Rob (co-owner of Napa's Robert Sinskey Vineyards), serve their wine at parties. But she also offers refreshing punches like this one, made with tart-sweet pomegranate juice and finished with Prosecco. More Drinks For A Crowd
These Asian-inspired Cornish hens are simple and elegant, and they allow each guest to have their own small bird. Slideshow:  Main Course Alternatives to Thanksgiving Turkey  
This festive duck roast is stuffed with a delicious sweet-and-sour cherry filling. Slideshow:  Main Course Alternatives to Thanksgiving Turkey 
Slow-Roasted Balsamic Turnips
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Balsamic vinegar mixed with butter and caramel makes an inspired glaze for these pleasantly bitter roasted turnips. More Healthy Vegetable Recipes
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Sweet cranberries and crispy pancetta dress up this quick spinach side dish. Slideshow:  Thanksgiving Spinach Recipes 
Sautéed Chard with Pancetta
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Rainbow Swiss chard (also known as Bright Lights) has green leaves, but its stems and ribs range from yellow to red. It's available at some supermarkets. Plain, all-green Swiss chard can be substituted for the more colorful variety.Plus: More Vegetable Recipes and Tips
Sausage Potato Puffs
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Maria Helm Sinskey has a strategy for parties: there should be a mix of baked, fried and fresh hors d'oeuvres. Besides ensuring that guests don't overload on one kind of appetizer, she also avoids too much last-minute cooking. These tender potato puffs spiked with spicy sausages are one of her favorite oven-baked starters. More Cocktail Party Recipes
Sardinian-Style Paella
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Fregola, the pearl-size Sardinian pasta that is quite similar to couscous, makes a terrific substitute for rice in this paella-style dish; it soaks up a lot of the cooking liquid from the seafood, tomato and chorizo stew and still stays nicely chewy. For such an impressive main course, it can be prepared surprisingly quickly. More Paella Recipes
Guinea hen breasts are succulent and flavorful. If you can't find them at a specialty food store, mail-order them from D'Artagnan (800-327-8246) or substitute chicken breasts.Plus: More Chicken Recipes and Tips
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This classic turkey is rubbed with an aromatic shallot-sage butter, then stuffed with a nutty chestnut-apple stuffing. Plus:  More Thanksgiving Turkey Recipes 
This juicy herb-stuffed chicken bakes with a splash of lemon juice, which also spikes the rich pan sauce. Amazing Chicken Recipes
Pork with Grapes and Tarragon
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This dish tastes surprisingly rich for something so low in fat, thanks in part to the tannins in black and red grapes. “If you make the sauce with less tannic green grapes, it just won’t have the same texture,” says Maria Helm Sinskey. When she can find them, Sinskey uses fragrant black muscat grapes here. More Ideas for Cooking with Grapes
A faster and incredibly moist Thanksgiving alternative, this Spanish-inspired turkey breast with chorizo and pimentón is full of smoky heat and flavor. Plus:  Delicious Thanksgiving Turkey Recipes 
Persimmon-Goat Cheese Wedges
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"In late fall there are almost as many persimmons in Napa Valley as grapes," says Maria Helm Sinskey. Among the creative ways she uses them: these wedges of sweet persimmon layered with goat cheese. More Make-Ahead Hors D'Oeuvres Recipes