December is high season for Dungeness crab, those sweet and tender crustaceans that hang around the eelgrass beds just off the West Coast.
Whether you're throwing a formal, sit-down dinner on New Year's Eve or watching football on New Year's Day, consider serving a delicious dish made with this regional -- and extremely seasonal -- delicacy.
"This time of year, the crabs are like tomatoes" in summer, said David Bush, executive chef at St. Francis Winery, who serves an "Ode to Crab" dinner each December. "Crab is a holiday treat, and then it's gone, and everybody is back to mac 'n' cheese."
With holiday entertaining in mind, we asked Wine Country chefs to find recipes that would provide high flavor and low stress, from easy salads and dips to casseroles and pasta dishes.
Consider doing what the chefs do, and recycle the leftover crab from your New Year's Eve feast into another dish for a New Year's Day brunch or open house. And if there's not enough meat, you can always purchase a back-up supply of pre-picked crab from the seafood counterto mix in with the leftover crab.
A simple but delicious way to serve fresh crab is to pair it with winter citrus in a light, tasty salad.
"I love a really good crab salad," said Carlo Cavallo, chef/owner of Meritage restaurant in Sonoma. "That's probably my favorite way to eat crab."
Cavallo likes to pair blood oranges and avocado with cucumber and crab and serve it all on a bed of microgreens and mache with a lemon-olive oil dressing.
At St. Francis Winery, Bush serves a similar crab salad with thinly shaved Fuyu persimmons and fennel, segmented Satsumas and a tangerine vinaigrette. He also likes to serve a simple crab, spinach and brie dip with crostini, as an appetizer.
"It's super simple, and it's fun because it's hot, and everyone gets some," he said. "It would be great for a brunch, and you can put it out with some Champagne or chardonnay."
At Nick's Cove in Marshall, executive chef Austin Perkins makes a decadent Dungeness Crab Mac 'n' Cheese with a combination of Spring Hill Cheddar, Parmigiano-Reggiano and Point Reyes Toma cheese.
"The real key is not to overpower the flavor of the crab and its delicate, sweet flavor," he said. "Toma is an incredibly good melting cheese, and the flavor is even more delicate than gruyere."
Topped with breadcrumbs, this mac'n'cheese has become so popular that it can never leave the menu, ever.
"It's definitely rich, but people love it," Perkins said. "It's very comforting and warm on a wintry day."
If you want to lighten up, Cavallo suggests recycling your leftover crab into a spicy pasta with mushrooms and a white wine or champagne sauce.
During the holidays, Josh Silvers of Jackson's in Santa Rosa always serves a crab dish for his family that gives the traditional boiled feast a flavor boost.
Instead of serving up cooked crab with melted butter, he roasts the cooked crab in a compound butter spiked with smoked paprika and dark chili powder, garlic and ginger. Then he finishes it with a sprinkle of green onion, cilantro and lime juice.
The recipe was inspired by the Roasted Dungeness Crab he and his wife always order at Crustacean, an Asian-fusion restaurant in San Francisco.