Seafood favorites from local top chefs

by Nicholas Boer:

The best packages come from the sea. Sweet lobster and crab packed in bright-red shells. Plump mussels dressed up in shiny black. Garlicky, whole prawns just waiting to be unwrapped.

Where's the beef? Who cares. Here are plenty of seafood ideas from our best local chefs.

ESIN

Curtis and Esin deCarion of Esin in Danville, love to do Dungeness crab for their two boys on the holidays. Start with cooked, cleaned crab and roast in the oven with olive oil, garlic, and lemon zest. "It's an absolute disaster mess," says Curtis of the aftermath of cracking and eating the crab. But it's worth it."

At the restaurant Curtis serves crab cakes with Meyer lemon aioli. He also takes advantage of winter citrus by making a crab salad of avocado, tender lettuce and grapefruit segments tossed in a Meyer lemon vinaigrette.

BLACKHAWK GRILL

Jason Bergaron, the new chef at the revamped Blackhawk Grille in Danville will start a holiday meal off with a salad of sea scallops and cranberry vinaigrette. For the vinaigrette steep a handful of fresh cranberries in white wine or Champagne vinegar for 10 minutes, then puree in a blender with enough honey and a neutral oil, such as grape seed to obtain a well-balanced dressing. Cube, steam and cool two cups of butternut squash in advance; finely julienne a green apple or two; and toast some pumpkin seeds. When ready to serve, toss the squash and apples with the vinaigrette and some arugula perhaps, and sear the scallops (don't overcook!). Arrange to show off the colors, drizzle the plate with more vinaigrette and sprinkle with the pumpkin seeds.

"You have bright orange, green, and red," says Bergaron. Perfect holiday colors.

For a winter main course Bergaron likes to top pumpkin risotto with swordfish, shrimp or salmon. To make, cook your risotto ¾ of the way well in advance, cool down on a cookie sheet and store in the fridge. Use canned pumpkin or roast sugar pumpkins and scoop out the flesh. When ready to serve, reheat the risotto and pumpkin in water or vegetable stock with a little cinnamon, butter and parmesan, cooking down adding more liquid if necessary until hot. Ladle on to warm plates or large platter (the risotto should still be loose) topping it with the grilled or roasted seafood. "People loved it at the restaurant,"  says Bergaron, referring to his time as a chef in Massachusetts. "I had to keep it on the menu, running it in summer."

YANKEE PIER

Stuffed Maine lobster is one of the most popular holiday seafood dishes at Yankee Pier in Lafayette, where Michael Dunn has been the chef since it opened more than four years ago. To create your own home version, just google "stuffed lobster". Alton Brown has a good, if complicated, recipe.

For an easier dish, Dunn purees roast squash, and tops it with sweet tasting seafood, such as scallops, sole, local halibut or prawns. Make a cranberry jus ahead by reduce down cranberry juice with white wine, a cinnamon stick and a couple of cloves until lightly thickened. Strain, add a little apple juice. When ready to serve, bring to a simmer and whisk in cold butter, then ladle the jus around the squash puree.

For those who require something meatier, Dunn will coat ahi tuna with a little Dijon mustard and coarse black pepper, Sear or grill lightly, leaving it raw in the middle. "Tuna has such a meaty flesh," Dunn says. "If you had a blindfold you wouldn't know it was fish." For a stunning hors d'oeuvre, sear thick tuna steaks rare a day ahead. When ready to serve, cut thin and arrange the slices on a plate with your favorite sauce, such as mayo mixed with wasabi paste and lemon.

For those who require actual meat, do a surf and turf. Dunn marinates prawns, with fresh thyme, orange zest, garlic, white wine and olive oil for a couple of hours. Then grill steaks along with the prawns (three or four on presoaked skewers if you like).

Choosing seafood as part of your holiday celebrations can be both stunning and simple. When served cold, nearly everything can be prepared ahead and freshened up at the last minute.

WALNUT CREEK YACHT CLUB

Cooked and chilled Maine lobster is the ultimate party dish, especially if you serve it in halves, in the shell. Kevin Weinberg of the Yacht Club in Walnut Creek removes the cooked claws and chops up the meat with a little celery, onion and homemade mayonnaise. Then he stirs in a bunch of chopped parsley and stuffs the mixture back into the cleaned-out lobster body cavity. A red shell, white tail meat and green lobster salad. The colors of Christmas.

If you're cooking the lobster yourself, figure about 10 minutes of steaming or boiling in salt water for a 1 1/2-pound lobster.

On the less-expensive side, mussels are delicious cold, and steaming them ahead lets you use the juices for a flavorful vinaigrette. Put a few dozen mussels in a pan with a splash of wine, cover and cook until the shells just pop open. Then spread the mussels out to cool and reduce the juices in the pan to a thick consistency. Transfer to a bowl and mix with a little Dijon mustard, minced shallots, salt and lemon juice or white wine vinegar, and then whisk in chopped parsley and olive oil to make a tangy vinaigrette.

For the mussels, Weinberg breaks off a shell from each one, and stores them shell-side down in the refrigerator. When ready to serve, he might arrange the mussels on a plate in a circular wreath pattern and then drizzle with the vinaigrette.

Shrimp hold better and taste better in the shell—hot or cold. You can poach them in salt water (just bring the water to a boil, throw in medium- to large-sized shrimp, turn off the heat and let sit for 10 to 15 minutes). Or roast them in the oven with garlic oil and salt. They will hold fine for a day or two in the refrigerator, and the garlicky shells are wonderful to peel.

Weinberg coats fresh shrimp in a mix of dry spices, and tosses them in a hot, heavy skillet with just a touch of oil. He roasts them in the oven for a couple of minutes, and dumps them straight on a platter to eat hot or let cool. If you get really fresh shrimp, you can even eat the shells.

Ceviche (raw marinated fish) is another easy dish to do ahead. Because the citrus juices are what cook the fish, Weinberg says it should be served between four and 24 hours after marinating. He covers bite-sized pieces of rock cod, bay scallops or albacore tuna in a mix of lemon, lime and orange juice and zest. Then, right before serving, he tosses in some fresh minced veggies, such as red onion, serrano chile and cilantro.

Good-quality dayboat scallops are expensive, but there are ways to get the most for your money, especially if you are daring enough to serve the scallops raw (it's the best way to eat them). Weinberg slices thin coins from large fresh scallops and creates a spiral pattern by alternating them with cucumber slices. Then he garnishes the dish with finely chopped mint, good olive oil, lemon, lime and julienned prosciutto that has been briefly crisped in hot oil. A little sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper on top and you've got an impressive dish.

If you don't want to cook, and don't want to eat anything raw, put out a tray of smoked salmon. Weinberg minces red onion, grabs some capers and, for a sauce, whisks together fresh dill, salt, lemon and sour cream. He might arrange the garnishes to look like a Christmas tree, and put the smoked salmon around it. Or, for a more substantial treat, he serves the salmon with potato pancakes.

What Bay Area seafood fest would be complete without Dungeness crab? It's easy to buy them precooked, and Weinberg says they hold pretty well for a couple of days (ask your fishmonger when they were cooked). All you need to serve them is a dipping sauce or two, such as remoulade or lemon aioli. Just crack the shells with a mallet, pile high, and let your guests dig for the sweet meat (don't crack until the day you're serving the crab or the meat will dry out).

An impressive way to do fish is to serve a whole side of cold-poached salmon. Weinberg suggests laying the scaled and cleaned salmon in a big lasagna pan across two burners and filling it with wine, water and aromatic vegetables and herbs. Bring it to a boil, put your fish in, turn off the heat and cover it with aluminum foil. When cool, the fish will be perfectly cooked. Chill the whole pan—Fish, liquid and all—in the refrigerator until you're ready to serve.

"That's exactly how I recommend people make it at home," Weinberg says.

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