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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.

"The genesis of the idea was a roasted crab, but this is different from theirs," he said. "I decided to use chili and ginger, and the family went crazy over it."

To make it even easier, you can make the compound butter a few days in advance.

"It's so fast and easy, and so delicious," Silvers said. "The lime at the end is important, because you want that little bit of acid."

The hardest challenge you'll face is cleaning up your hands and face after you dig into the buttery feast.

"Make sure you have a bunch of clean towels at the end," he suggested.

This recipe is from Josh Silvers of Jackson's and Three Squares Cafe in Santa Rosa.

Chili Roasted Dungeness Crab

Makes 4 servings

4 cooked and cleaned Dungeness Crab

? pounds unsalted, softened butter

1 tablespoon smoked paprika

1 2-inch piece grated ginger

1 tablespoon dark chili powder

-- Zest of 1 orange and 1 lime

2 teaspoons chopped garlic

-- Salt and pepper

1 bunch sliced green onion

1 bunch chopped cilantro (save a little for garnish)

3 limes, plus zest (1 cut in wedges for garnish

Preheat oven to 500 degrees.

Mix butter, paprika, ginger, chili powders, citrus zests, garlic, salt and pepper. (This can be done three days ahead.)

Break up the crab into halves or quarters, making sure the legs are cracked to let the butter in.

Melt the butter mixture and in a big bowl, toss the crab with the butter mix until it's well coated.

Lay crab on a sheet tray and roast until hot, about 10 to 12 minutes.

Put crab back in the bowl and add the cilantro and green onion, then and squeeze the juice from the two limes.

Pile on a big platter and garnish with the lime wedges and cilantro. Serve with plenty of sturdy napkins.

This recipe is from Austin Perkins, executive chef of Nick's Cove in Marshall.

Nick's Cove Dungeness Crab Mac 'n' Cheese

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 pound Dungeness crab meat

2 pounds dried elbow macaroni pasta

? pound unsalted butter

? cup flour

? quart whole milk

? quart heavy cream

2 leeks, white part only, sliced

1 cup Point Reyes Toma, shredded

1 cup Spring Hill Cheddar, shredded

? cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, shredded

-- Salt to taste

-- Tabasco

-- Fresh lemon juice (from ? lemon)

-- Parsley, chopped (for garnish)

-- Toasted breadcrumbs (for garnish)

In a large pot, bring three gallons of water to a rolling boil.

Add pasta and boil, stirring occasionally, 6-8 minutes. Drain and transfer to a large mixing bowl and set aside. In another large pot, begin melting the butter. Add the leeks and sweat 5-10 minutes, until soft.

Add the flour. Stir constantly; cook until the mixtures bubbles for 2-3 minutes and smells like shortbread.

Add the milk and bring to a boil; reduce to simmer. Allow the mixture to reduce while simmering, approximately 5 minutes. Add the cream and again allow to simmer for 5 minutes.

Add all the cheese and whisk until incorporated. Add salt to taste; add 3-5 drops of Tabasco sauce and the juice of a quarter lemon.

Pour over pasta and add crab meat, stirring to incorporate. Top with toasted breadcrumbs and parsley and serve.

The following recipe is from David Bush, executive chef at St. Francis Winery in Santa Rosa. Serve with warm crostini.

Crab, Spinach

and Brie Dip

1 medium leek (white part only)

1 medium yellow onion

1 pound baby spinach

1 pound Brie

2 tablespoons minced garlic

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra

? cup white wine

2/3 cup heavy cream

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh tarragon leaves

1 pound fresh crab meat

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon Tabasco, or to taste

1? cups bread crumbs

-- Salt and white pepper to taste

Preheat an oven to 425 degrees and lightly oil an 11-inch gratin or other shallow baking dish

Wilt the baby spinach in a little olive oil, place in a colander to drain then wrap in a towel and squeeze excess moisture out. Chop roughly.

Trim and finely chop the leek. In a large bowl of water wash leek well and lift from water into a large sieve to drain. Finely chop onion. Squeeze dry and finely chop spinach. Discard rind from Brie and cut into ?-inch pieces.

In a heavy skillet cook leek, onion, and garlic in oil over moderate heat, stirring, until pale golden, stir in spinach. Add wine and cook, stirring for about 3 minutes or until almost dry. Add cream and simmer, stirring for 1 minute. Add Brie, stirring until it just begins to melt. Remove skillet from heat and stir herbs into the mixture.

Pick over crab meat, being sure all shells are removed. In a large bowl stir together crab meat, mustard, Tabasco, and salt and pepper to taste; stir in the cheese mixture. Spread mixture evenly in baking dish, cover with bread crumbs and drizzle with a little olive oil. Cover the dish with foil and bake in middle of oven 15 to 20 minutes, remove foil and bake until golden brown.

Note: Dish can be assembled the day before; remove from refrigerator 30 minutes before baking.

This recipe is from Carlo Cavallo, chef/owner of Meritage Martini Oyster Bar and Grille in Sonoma.

Dungeness Crab and Blood Orange Salad

Makes 4 servings

1 bunch of chives, thinly sliced

? cup Muscat vinegar

? cup of extra virgin olive oil

-- Salt and pepper

12 ounces Dungeness crabmeat

4 ounces Mache

2 blood oranges, zested and then peeled and segmented

2 ripe avocados, cut into cubes

1 English cucumber, cut into cubes

In a mixing bowl, add half of the chives and Muscat vinegar. Slowly whisk in the extra virgin olive oil to create an infusion dressing, add salt & pepper to taste. Take half of this mixture and marinate the crabmeat in it.

In a separate bowl, add the blood orange segments, cucumber, avocado and remaining chives. Toss the ingredients with half of the remainomgg dressing and place approximately a quarter of the salad mixture in a 8-ounce cylinder mold, press down firmly, add 3 ounces of crabmeat, press down firmly again and unmold. Top each crab salad with some mache, drizzle with remaining dressing and sprinkle with blood orange zest.

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