Chef and wine pro Maria Helm Sinskey serves the king of reds with the king of beef for a pull-out-the-stops holiday meal
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Cab's big night
This year, the big dinner at the Sinskeys’ rustic remake of an old Napa Valley barn consists of a group of good friends―“a lot of wine geeks,” as Maria puts it. Flutes of bubbly handed out at the door set the tone for the evening’s festivities. A crisp, cold white poured with spicy shrimp reminds everyone how good a well-planned match can be. But that’s all a warm-up to the main event: a grand rib roast paired with several Cabernet Sauvignons, the Sinskey among them. The pleasure comes in noticing what the beef brings out in each wine.
Crispy shrimp with arugula and lemony mayo
This crowd-pleasing appetizer can be plated with the greens as a sit-down first course or served without greens as stand-up finger food. “I like my shrimp spicy; my daughters don’t,” says Maria. “So I split the crumbs and add the cayenne to half.”
THE WINE Cold, crisp Sauvignon Blanc with a smidgen of Semillon.
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Secrets for success
“Sometimes we hide our wine in brown bags so our friends aren’t swayed by the labels,” says Maria Helm Sinskey. Especially when one of the bottles is an exquisite $80 Cabernet from Robert Sinskey Vineyards, which Maria owns with her husband, Rob. Tonight, though, all bottles stand unmasked. It’s Christmas, and for Maria, it’s the best time to present a cast of wines―with the king of reds in the lead role.
A former chef at San Francisco’s PlumpJack Cafe, Maria has written two cookbooks, including just-released Family Meals: Creating Traditions in the Kitchen (Oxmoor House, 2008; $33). Now she’s on track to sit for the Masters of Wine test next spring. (There are only 277 MWs in the world; none of them works as a professional chef.)
But it doesn’t take a professional to turn out Maria’s Christmas menu. And it doesn’t take an $80 bottle to revel in this food and wine pairing. It just takes some planning, and more than one Cab. You can hold the bags―or not.
Stick with casual, natural decor: Maria sets out a bay laurel table runner and napkin sprigs, plus amaryllis blooms, with festive red-pink accents.
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Why beef and cab?
Marbled, tender, and pungent with herbs, prime rib brings as much to Cabernet Sauvignon as a food can possibly offer a wine. In fact, a good Cabernet upgrades humbler cuts of beef too.
THE WINE Serve Cabs in a range of prices and play the high-low game: Have people choose their favorite and guess the price. You’ll be surprised at what comes out on top.
If you’re on a budget this year, substitute a cross rib roast for the prime rib―delicious, if slightly less tender, and what a price difference. Just be careful not to cook it past 125°, and cut it into slightly thinner slices to serve.
Your Cabernets don’t have to break the bank either. “If you splurge on one bottle and you don’t like it, it’s disheartening,” says Maria. “Stick within your budget and you’ll never be disappointed.”
Braised winter greens with bacon
Old-fashioned long-cooked winter greens are pure comfort; sneak in some top-quality bacon and zippy mustard seeds, and they’re holiday fare.
The one-oven plan
Bake the shrimp on the rack closest to the heat source when you start the roast. (The temperature is only 450°, but because the shrimp are close to the heat, they brown well.) When shrimp are done, let them rest at room temperature, loosely covered with foil, until beef is almost done; then uncover shrimp and return to oven for 4 to 5 minutes to reheat. As soon as you take the roast out of the oven, crank up the heat to 475° and bake the potatoes while the roast rests and you serve the shrimp.
You can toast the hazelnuts up to three days ahead; store airtight at room temperature. You can bake the pears up to 4 hours ahead; let stand at room temperature. Rewarm and baste with syrup right before serving.
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Maria's wine picks and tips
A bubbly to start Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs 2005 (North Coast; $36). Lovely core of pear and crisp apple flavors, with rich yeastiness underneath and effervescent lemon on top.
White with the First course
Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc 2007 (Napa and Sonoma Counties; $32). Bright, complex citrus and stone fruit, with a rich core from a little Semillon blended in (the traditional white blend in Bordeaux).
Cab choices for the main event
Robert Sinskey Vandal Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Los Carneros, Napa Valley; $48). Lively cassis and dark berries play over a foresty bed of juniper, cedar, and mocha flavors.
Robert Sinskey “SLD” Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Stags Leap District, Napa Valley; $85). The winery’s showcase wine―elegantly structured, with complex layers of dark plums and cherries, cedar, and espresso.
Spottswoode “Lyndenhurst” Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 (St. Helena, Napa Valley; $60). A plush wine with classic cassis, dark chocolate, a touch of cedar, and fine tannins.
The Girls in the Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 (Red Hills, Lake County; $20). A great-value, fruit-driven Cab made by old friends of the Sinskeys. A little mint and a few herbs lurk under juicy black cherries.
Maria's cab tip 1
Cabs tend to be large-boned. A fat-rich, meaty rib roast stands up to the weight of Cabernet and tames the tannins.
Maria's cab tip 2
Most Western Cabs are made in a soft, young-drinking style. All it takes to open them up is a few good swirls in the glass.
Maria's cab tip 3
Serve red wine on the cool side, and let it warm up in the glass. There’s no greater sin than to serve a red warm.