Today’s recipes are from Maria Helm Sinskey, one of my favorite chefs. Maria is a master at creating interesting combinations that you may not have considered before. At first glance her recipes may seem a bit long, but it is Maria at her best – anticipating every question that might be asked. She is an engaging woman and her personality practically leaps off the pages of her cookbooks. You can imagine sitting down with her at the kitchen table, chatting about food over a cup of coffee and nibbling on treats.
I have been lucky to take several cooking classes from Maria and each time I walk away completely energized and grinning ear to ear. That is the affect Maria has on people who meet her. She is warm and funny, with a huge welcoming smile on her face, like she is your best friend. When you watch her cooking, you know that you can replicate her menu easily in your own home. Even ingredients I thought I didn’t like are delicious in her talented creations.
Maria was reared in upstate New York, part of a large food-obsessed family, which included an Alsatian grandmother on one side and an Italian grandmother on the other. She was destined for a life in the culinary industry. She became a West Coast convert when she attended San Francisco’s California Culinary Academy. Jobs in high profile restaurants and cooking stints in Europe gave her the foundation for her award-winning career. Named Food & Wine’s Best New Chef 1996 while at Plumpjack Cafe in San Francisco, and Rising Star Chef awards in SF Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle helped get her name recognition in the industry.
She met and fell in love with Rob Sinskey, a leading winemaker in the Napa Valley (and one of my favorites!), they married and she moved to Wine Country. She is a devoted wife and mother of two adorable girls, she tends her organic garden, writes captivating cookbooks, teaches cooking classes and creates culinary magic as the culinary director for Robert Sinskey Vineyards.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about my love affair with Robert Sinskey Vineyards. Long before I knew who Maria Helm was, I loved Sinskey wines. One of the smaller producers in the Napa Valley and outside the main tourist district, it is a gem that I always take my friends and visiting guests to.
With a laid-back atmosphere and friendly staff, Sinskey is one of the best places to do wine tasting. They display everything that a wine tasting experience can be. It isn’t about guzzling just to get drunk, it is about sampling carefully crafted wines and learning to detect the subtle flavor undertones. They have a thoughtfully prepared food and wine pairing that demonstrates how much each influences the other. You come away from Sinskey with an understanding of what life in wine country is all about … good wine, good food, and good friends.
Today’s first recipe is a tortilla, but probably not the kind you make a taco with. It is a Spanish tortilla, Spain’s version of a frittata. Both tortillas and frittatas are similar to omelets. Additional ingredients are folded into an omelet but with tortillas and frittatas you lightly sauté your preferred additions and then pour in the eggs, completely encasing them. Then depending on the recipe you can slip the egg “pancake” out of the pan, flip it and put it back in to cook the other side, or put it in the oven. I prefer using the oven because it cooks them more gently and you have less chance of winding up with rubbery eggs.
This tortilla is wonderful served warm, at room temperature or hot. It can be made ahead which makes it perfect for parties, picnics and weeknight meals. You can serve it cut into small squares as an appetizer, as part of larger meal or as the main course with a side salad or vegetable.
Maria serves the tortilla with a fabulous, classic Spanish Romesco sauce. It originated in Tarragon, Spain and is common in Catalan cuisine. It was first prepared by fisherman in Catalonia and is still most often served with seafood. But it is also a wonderful addition to a variety of meats. Typically made with roasted almonds, hazelnuts, or a combination of the two, it has a rich earthiness that is delightful.
Made by grinding the ingredients together in a food processor or blender, you can make it as chunky or smooth as you want and due to the addition of tomatoes and chiles it is usually light orange in color. Romesco sauce adds tremendous flavor to anything it is served with and because of its boldness, which can easily overpower more delicate foods, it should be paired with other strong flavors.
Romesco is fabulous in a number of applications. Don’t limit it to just saucing a plate. You can slather it on simple sandwiches, use it as a dip for vegetable crudites, it can be the base for soups or simply spread it on grilled slices of bread for a delightful snack. Romesco is very easy to make, doesn’t take exotic ingredients and stores up to a week in the refrigerator. If you put this on your buffet, it will be the most popular item at the party!
Maria’s mantra is “eat seasonally, drink good wine, and live a long and prosperous life.” I believe that is something we should all strive for. Brava Maria!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
Oils tend to turn rancid fairly easily, so store them in a cool place if you are not using them up quickly. This is especially important with oils from nuts such as walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts. I store mine in a cupboard away from the stove and oven. Never use specialty oils for high-heat cooking – it is a waste of your money. Save them for salads and other preparations where they are showcased.
Potato and Sweet Onion Tortilla
Sinskey Vineyards Executive Chef Maria Helm-Sinskey
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
5 large Yukon gold potatoes, peeled & cut in half
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, diced
5 medium garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1/2 tsp sweet Pimentón de la Vera (paprika)
8 eggs, well beaten
1/2 cup thinly sliced green onions
Romesco Sauce (recipe follows)
Lightly grease a 12-inch x 3-inch round ceramic baking dish with olive oil. A square baking dish with similar volume may be substituted. Set aside.
Parboil the potatoes in salted water until they are almost tender but still holding their shape. Drain and cool them until they are comfortable to handle. Cut them in large 2-inch pieces. Reserve.
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Heat a large 12-inch sauté pan over medium high heat and add the olive oil, then add the onions, garlic and potatoes. Cook until the potatoes are tender and the garlic and onions are soft. Reduce the heat if the vegetables begin to brown, season them to taste with salt.
Transfer the vegetables to the prepared baking dish and spread them evenly in the bottom. Sprinkle the Pimentón over the top.
Pour the eggs over the vegetables and mix gently to incorporate the eggs into the potatoes evenly. Place the tortilla in the preheated oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes until the eggs are set and the top is slightly golden.
Sprinkle the sliced green onions over the top. Serve warm with the Romesco Sauce.
Sinskey Vineyards Executive Chef Maria Helm-Sinskey
Yield: 1-1/2 cups
This is a deliciously complex sauce in taste and texture but simple to make. Use it to top the tortilla or grilled pork, chicken or fish. It also is great with roasted cauliflower!! Allow the sauce to sit for at least 30 minutes so the flavors can marry. The sauce can also be made 1 day in advance. Bring to room temperature before serving.
1 cup soft breadcrumbs, leftover baguette works great
3/4 cup water
2 small garlic cloves
1/2 cup toasted sliced almonds
1 tsp sweet Pimentón de la Vera (paprika)
1 tsp hot Pimentón de la Vera (paprika)
1 tsp salt plus more to taste
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp sherry vinegar
1/2 cup canned diced tomatoes or 1 small fresh tomato
In a small bowl, soak the breadcrumbs with the water for 5 minutes. Squeeze the breadcrumbs dry and put them in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment.
Add the garlic cloves and almonds and pulse until the almonds are of medium-fine grind.
Add the remaining ingredients and pulse until they are relatively smooth but still retain some texture. Season to taste with salt.
MAKE AHEAD: Can be made 1 day in advance. Bring to room temperature before serving.
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