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Sonoma Dish: Dungeness crab season is here – grab your crackers, Sonoma!

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Fresh Crab and Avocado Salad with Pancetta

Serves 4

8 1/8-inch slices pancetta

1/3 cup sour cream

¼ cup best-quality mayonnaise

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

1 bunch chives, chopped

1 clove garlic, chopped

½ anchovy fillet

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 head butter lettuce, torn into pieces

1 14-ounce can hearts of palm, rinsed and drained and cut into ½-inch pieces

1 avocado, halved, pitted and diced

1 pound lump and claw crabmeat

1. Working in batches, cook the pancetta in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, turning occasionally, until crisp, about 4 minutes. Drain on paper towels and set aside.

2. In a food processor, combine the sour cream, mayonnaise, basil, chives, garlic, anchovy, and lemon juice and puree until smooth. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

3. In a large bowl, combine the lettuce, hearts of palm, and avocado and gently toss with the dressing. Divide the salad among four plates and serve topped with the pancetta slices and crabmeat. Enjoy!

No doubt about it, crab season opens and you know the holiday season has officially begun. The enjoyment of Dungeness crab is a distinct culinary highlight to a Sonoma holiday. Unique to the northern Pacific coast, the Dungeness crab, with its slightly sweet and delicate meat, is a favorite culinary treat this time of year. For many, myself included, the holidays are not complete without the communal gathering of at least one crab boil.

Yet no need to prepare the crabby creature yourself. For Sonoma Valley folks, a crab boil is a trip to Sonoma Market where the tasty crustaceans are famously steamed, cleaned and cracked on sight. To get a better handle — er, claw – on all things Dungeness, I spoke with Alex Brumfield, the seafood manager at Sonoma Market.

Brumfield told me that the commercial crab season has an official start date of Nov. 15 and runs though May although nearly all of the bounty is harvested by year’s end. An exclusive relationship with a fishery out of Half Moon Bay supplies Sonoma Market with its first haul. Brumfield and his team personally pick up the load on that inaugural day. Subsequent orders are placed pre-dawn with delivery promised by 1 p.m., six days a week. A huge crab pot stands ready to boil approximately 100 pounds of crab at a time which is then finished in an ice bath, cracked, cleaned and delivered to the fish counter ready for purchase by 2 p.m. Unique to Sonoma Market is this daily on-sight preparation of the crab. Unlike other stores where the crab for sale has been prepared by the supplier (i.e. some place far away and who knows when), you will not find fresher crab anywhere.

The demand for fresh crab from Sonoma Market is fierce. Orders placed for pick-up on Christmas Eve are particularly hectic with Brumfield and his team working overtime to meet the Christmas demand. Brumfield has seen customers line up out the door in hopes of securing the specialty. So as to better serve you, the market will happily take your pre-order a couple of days in advance to guarantee your culinary allotment.

Ask any crab connoisseur and they will tell you the most delicious way to enjoy Dungeness crab is to eat it freshly steamed and absolutely unadulterated in any way. No marinating, no steeping, no nothing. Because of the delicate and mild flavor of the meat, dipping sauces should be kept to a minimum. Purists enjoy a squeeze of lemon and a dip in drawn butter; an aioli or mild cocktail sauce will complement the flavor nicely.

A simple green salad and tangy sourdough bread are the perfect accompaniments to serve alongside.

A feast of fresh crab would not be complete without the requisite wine pairing. Best to keep to a white varietal balanced in acidity. The wine should complement and accentuate the crab, not overpower its delicate flavor. You want to cleanse the palate with each sip setting you up for the next bite.

Draw out the holiday season for all its worth, enjoying fresh Dungeness crab every bite of the way.

The sublime flavors of this salad perfectly accentuate the sweet and delicate flavors of the fresh crab. Serve with a crisp sauvignon blanc or a bright pinot grigio.

Fresh Crab and Avocado Salad with Pancetta

Serves 4

8 1/8-inch slices pancetta

1/3 cup sour cream

¼ cup best-quality mayonnaise

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

1 bunch chives, chopped

1 clove garlic, chopped

½ anchovy fillet

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 head butter lettuce, torn into pieces

1 14-ounce can hearts of palm, rinsed and drained and cut into ½-inch pieces

1 avocado, halved, pitted and diced

1 pound lump and claw crabmeat

1. Working in batches, cook the pancetta in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, turning occasionally, until crisp, about 4 minutes. Drain on paper towels and set aside.

2. In a food processor, combine the sour cream, mayonnaise, basil, chives, garlic, anchovy, and lemon juice and puree until smooth. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

3. In a large bowl, combine the lettuce, hearts of palm, and avocado and gently toss with the dressing. Divide the salad among four plates and serve topped with the pancetta slices and crabmeat. Enjoy!