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."