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.
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.
Won Best New Chef at: PlumpJack Cafe, San Francisco