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In the winter kitchen, we mash root vegetables into soothing purees and braise tough cuts of beef until they are meltingly tender.

In the Bay Area, we also crack open the local crop of Dungeness crab, whose tough, outer carapace belies a surfeit of sweet, delicate meat within.

Such are the comforts of cooking at the holidays, when a little culinary magic can transform humble ingredients into a luxurious feast to ease the transition into the cold, dark depths of winter.

At J Vineyards & Winery in Healdsburg, chef Erik Johnson is offering a new series of classes and dinners this holiday season highlighted by the local and seasonal ingredients of Wine Country.

"The holidays are a joyous time of year," he said. "But they can be a little intimidating."

After kicking off with a Thanksgiving primer class, Johnson guided students through a Winter Holiday Meal featuring Warm Crab Salad with Pomegranate Beurre Blanc, Braised Short Ribs with Potato Puree, and a Persimmon and Chocolate Bread Pudding with Bourbon Whipped Cream.

"It's a rich meal," Johnson said. "But it's all in season and festive. It's for that one day of the year when you really want to indulge."

Johnson, who spent four years at Charlie Palmer's Dry Creek Kitchen before moving to J Vineyards & Winery earlier this year, sources all of his produce from Healdsburg farms, including Mix Garden, Preston Vineyards and Bernier Farms.

"I'm hyper-seasonal," he said. "I try to leave each ingredient as it is, and then play around with the garnishes."

In addition to teaching classes, Johnson is in charge of the food-and-wine pairings in the Bubble Room, where he showcases the high-end pinots and sparkling wines produced by the Russian River Valley winery.

"I love it because it really gives me an opportunity to play," he said. "I can do creative, high-end food, using local produce and some modern techniques."

For his Winter Holiday cooking class, Johnson demonstrated a canap?based on a simple crab salad drizzled with beurre blanc, an emulsified sauce made by reducing vinegar or wine with shallots, then whisking in butter.

"The sauce adds a nice, acidic contrast to the warm crab salad," he said.

For the class, Johnson served the crab on a blini pancake and topped it with fennel and pomegranate seeds. Since the blini takes two days to make, however, he advised home cooks to serve the crab on a thinly sliced persimmon chip, dried in a low-heat oven.

For the beef short ribs, Johnson prefers to use the "chuck flap," a boneless cut near the ribs that is less fatty than bone-in short ribs.

"You saut?some veggies, add red wine and beef stock," he said of the braising liquid. "Then you finish it off with some hearty herbs, like thyme."

As a green vegetable, Johnson would saut?some simple greens like arugula and mizuna, a peppery Japanese mustard, until just slightly wilted.

For the puree, the chef prefers to use a less starchy potato, like a Yukon Gold, which is mashed in a potato ricer for a silky, smooth texture.

The bread pudding dessert can be made with any kind of bread, but it's best with brioche, an enriched bread made with lots of butter and eggs.

"It's a little more luxurious and celebratory," he said. "The brioche also absorbs the moisture better."

Because the host needs to enjoy the dinner party alongside the guests, Johnson suggests working ahead on as many dishes as possible.

The short ribs taste even better when you braise them a day in advance, he said, and the bread pudding can be assembled and left to sit in the fridge.

"That makes the pudding more moist," he said. "The custard homogenizes with the bread."

The persimmon chips can also be made ahead of time, as well as the vinegar/wine base for the beurre blanc. Then, at the last minute, all you have to do is slowly whisk in the butter.

That way, the cook's to-do list on the day of the dinner is pared down to making the crab salad and the potato puree.

Then, just slide the bread pudding in the oven and whip up the Bourbon Whipped Cream while enjoying a glass of sparkling wine with your guests.

Note: Johnson will give a class on New Year's Eve fare from around the world at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at J Vineyards & Winery. $110, includes three-course meal, J wines and recipes. jwine.com.


The following recipes are from Erik Johnson of J Vineyards & Winery. A mandoline is required in order to slice the persimmons in this recipe.

Crab Salad on Persimmon Chip with Beurre Blanc

Makes 4 to 6 servings

For Crab Salad:

8-10 ounces Dungeness crab meat

1/8 cup small diced fennel

1/2 fennel bulb shaved or sliced thin

2 tablespoons shallot, small dice

1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

1 tablespoon lemon zest

1 teaspoon Esplette pepper

— Kosher salt

For Beurre Blanc:

1 cup white wine

1/8 cup of champagne or white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon whole black pepper corn

1 tablespoon whole coriander

3 bay leaves

1/2 cup of heavy cream

1 pound of unsalted butter( cut 1-inch cubes)

— Kosher Salt

For Persimmon Chip:

2 Fuyu persimmons

For garnish:

—Fennel fronds and fennel, thinly sliced.

For Crab Salad: Incorporate all ingredients in with the crab and thoroughly mix and season with salt to taste.

For Beurre Blanc: Place wine, vinegar, shallot and spices in a wide bottomed sauce pan and place pan over medium heat until about ? of the liquid remains. Add heavy cream and reduce until bubbling and then add butter a couple cubes at a time. Slowly incorporate the butter until it creates an emulsified sauce. Strain sauce and add salt to taste. Add to crab salad mixture just before serving.

For Persimmon Chip: Carefully slice the persimmon with a mandolin at the thickness of dime. Place Persimmon slice on a silpat or parchment paper atop a sheet pan. Bake at 200 degrees for about 4 hours. Should be crispy like potato chip.

To assemble: Place crab salad on top of a persimmon chip and finish with a garnish of thinly sliced fennel and fennel fronds.


Ask your butcher for the chuck flap for these short ribs.

Braised Boneless Short Ribs with Potato Puree and Fresh Horseradish

Makes 6 to 8 servings

4 pounds boneless short ribs (chuck flap)

2 tablespoons canola oil

2 carrots, peeled and chopped

1 onion, diced

1 celery stalk

2 cloves of garlic chopped

6 sprigs of thyme

2 cups of red wine

1 liter beef stock

— Kosher salt

— Fresh cracked pepper

For Potato Puree:

2 pounds yellow-fleshed potatoes, such as Yukon gold, unpeeled

— Kosher salt, to taste

1/4 cup milk

1/2 pound unsalted butter, cubed and chilled

— Fresh horseradish, for garnish

1 tablespoon cornstarch, for thickening (optional)

For Short Ribs: Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Season short ribs with salt and pepper (if the chuck flap is thick. generously season). Coat the bottom of a rimmed saut?pan or Le Creuset style Dutch oven with canola oil and heat over medium/high burner until the oil become thin. Add the short ribs and sear all sides until they're dark brown and then remove from the pan and set aside.

Add vegetables while the pan is still hot and saut?them until they're just softened. Pour in wine and let it reduce by half. Place the short ribs back into the pan and add all of the beef stock along with a good pinch of salt and stir, combining the wine with the stock. Cover and put the whole pan in the oven for about 4 hours. Check the doneness of the meat by poking it with a spoon. It should not have any resiliency or bounce back after pushing it. Let the dish rest for around 15-minutes before serving. Strain off a bit of the liquid into a pan and add 1 tablespoon of cornstarch slurry (1 tablespoon cornstarch to 1 cup water) if you want a thickened sauce for the top of the meat.

For Potato Puree: Boil potatoes in an 8-quart pot of salted water until tender, about 25 minutes. Drain potatoes and set aside to let cool slightly. Meanwhile, bring milk to a boil in a 1-quart saucepan; remove from heat, cover, and set aside.

Peel potatoes and pass them through a food mill or ricer into a 4-quart saucepan set over medium-low heat. Using a rubber spatula, turn potatoes frequently until they take on a drier, fluffier consistency, 2-3 minutes. Reduce heat to low. Working in batches, vigorously stir in the butter until mixture is creamy. Whisk in warmed milk, season potatoes with salt, and transfer them to a warm serving bowl.

To finish: Peel and grate fresh horseradish with a microplane over potato after serving, as you would shave fresh Parmesan over a pasta.


If you want to use Fuyu persimmons for this recipe, Johnson suggests dry roasting them for an hour or so in order to get a puree.

Persimmon Bread Pudding with Bourbon Whipped Cream

Makes 6 to 8 servings

3 Hachiya persimmons, peeled, seeded and mashed (1? cups fresh Hachiya persimmon puree)

1 lemon, zested

1 lemon, juiced

1 cup sugar (plus a little more for baking dish)

—Unsalted butter, for baking dish

10 slices (about 1? pounds) 1?-inch-thick day-old or toasted brioche, cut into 1?-inch pieces

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

6 ounces white chocolate, coarsely chopped or chips

2 cups milk

3 large eggs

For Bourbon Whipped Cream:

2 cups of Bourbon

2 cups of heavy whipping cream

2 tablespoons of confectioners sugar

— Kosher salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a small saucepan, combine persimmon puree, lemon zest, lemon juice, and ? cup sugar; simmer over low heat until sugar is dissolved.

Butter a 2-quart shallow baking dish, and sprinkle lightly with sugar. Place bread in baking dish; sprinkle with cinnamon and nutmeg.

In a medium saucepan, combine remaining ? cup sugar, white chocolate, and milk; stir frequently over low heat. Remove from heat once chocolate melts.

Whisk eggs in a medium bowl. Slowly whisk warm milke and white chocolate mixture into eggs, being careful not to cook the eggs; stir in persimmon mixture.

Pour mixture into baking dish, covering bread completely. Let the custard absorb into the mixture and let sit for at least an hour. Bake until filling sets, about 35 minutes.

For Bourbon Whipped Cream: Heat the bourbon over medium heat. You can reduce until about 20 percent of the mixture is left or flamb?the bourbon and keep over heat until the flame goes out, thus burning off the alcohol. Cool the liquid. Whip the cream into a medium peak and add bourbon reduction, pinch of salt and sugar. Keep whipping until the medium peak is reached again.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.

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