My mother never wanted to be taken out on Mother's Day. "Don't you dare," she'd say, half-joking but half-serious. Mostly, she disliked the obligatory part of it, the thought of being surrounded by, as she said, "all those people who probably never talk to each other the rest of the year, having to be nice to the old bat because it's her day." Not us, of course, but still she had no interest in getting hauled out for overpriced mimosas and underdone eggs Benedict.
What she did like was a homemade breakfast, wobbled up the stairs as soon as the oldest of her three girls was able to carry a tray. We didn't make anything particularly fancy, but just putting together eggs, toast, and coffee can be a challenge when you're four, seven and eight, even with Dad on deck. Partly, I think, she enjoyed the simple luxury of a morning off, but it also reassured her that we'd picked up the basics of what she did to feed us, day in and day out.
As she attests in her lavishly illustrated and user-friendly new book, Williams-Sonoma Family Meals: Creating Traditions in the Kitchen, cookbook author and former PlumpJack Cafe chef Maria Helm Sinskey feels the same way. Kids should know where their food comes from, whether it means picking out carrots at the market or helping Dad fry shrimp.
This isn't a kids' cookbook; instead, it's a cooking-together kind of book, full of dishes and menus that a whole family can make and enjoy together.
Helm Sinskey, her husband (acclaimed organic winemaker Robert Sinskey) and their two girls are adorable, the styling is charming, the recipes look both tasty and accessible, and alright, I'll admit it: by page 50, I was envious (those chickens! that lavender! those sweet dirty carrots!), and by page 260, I was downright suspicious. Who were these preternaturally well-behaved children daintily cutting out star shapes from their very own homemade marshmallows? As they frolic in the meadows around the Sinskeys' gorgeous wine-country house while stuffing handfuls of fresh vegetables into their mouths and saying things like "Mommy, you make the best vanilla ice cream ever!" the whole package can seem almost too rustically perfect.
Then again, it's a Williams-Sonoma book, not real life. And dinner with the Sinskeys sure looks like fun. In a time when some kids live on juice boxes and Cheerios, and other parents treat a single cupcake like a gateway drug to a lifetime sugar binge, Helm Sinskey's approach is refreshingly down to earth.
Her family seems to make the most of that old standby, the varied and balanced diet. Fresh fruits and vegetables are treated as a joy and a treat, not like pills that have to be gooped with brownie batter before they'll go down. As a smart mom and chef, she advocates for sustainable, responsible eating, providing helpful lists of recommended seafood, for example, or the differences between grass- and grain-fed beef. But she also doesn't flinch from serving reasonable amounts of butter, cream, steak, and yes, marshmallows. She can wax rhapsodic about red lentils and yellow split peas while also giving step-by-step instructions for making your own bacon.
In fact, the rainy-day projects interspersed throughout the book, like rolling pasta and pizza dough, simmering chicken stock, and making homemade jam and ricotta cheese, really make this two books in one.
The everyday recipes are good enough for company but generally simple enough to get on the table for a family meal, especially if some little hands help shell the peas, shuck the corn, or peel the shrimp.
The projects are part science (how does yeast grow? why does milk curdle?) part kitchen technique, and part educational messy fun. Who needs a Game Boy when you can be making real, honest-to-Pete home-cured bacon? OK, that last one might take a little convincing. But a kid who can make her own bacon is a kid well-prepared for adulthood. Thank Maria Helm Sinskey for that.