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MASTERS: Josh Silvers and Jeff Mall take their 'Iron Chef'–style partnership to print.

Urban / Cowboy

Josh Silvers and Jeff Mall team up to offer two sides of wine country cooking

By Gretchen Giles

Sometimes the timing is just right. Take 1959, for example, the year that Rodney Strong Vineyards was established. Or 1989, the year that Tom Klein's family took the winery over. Then there's 1999, the year that chef Josh Silvers and his wife, Regina, opened Syrah restaurant in Santa Rosa. Three months later, chef Jeff Mall and his partner Scott Silva opened Zin restaurant in Healdsburg. All players celebrate significant anniversaries this year, Rodney Strong justifiably proud of 50 years of business, the Kleins proud of 20 years of stewardship of their iconic label, and Zin and Syrah making their restaurateurs proud to have endured for a decade.

Why not celebrate the old-fashioned way, by cooking and eating and drinking and—absolutely—teaming up on a cookbook?

Which is exactly what Mall and Silvers have done with Down Home : Downtown Seasonal Recipes from Two Sonoma Wine Country Restaurants (Rodney Strong Vineyards; $24.95), a book that pairs Mall's informal Southern and Southwestern boots-on style with Silvers' French- and Italian-inspired wine country cuisine. The two restaurants reflect the two styles, Zin eschewing table cloths and fuss for straightforward goodness, in most cases harvested directly from the Eastside Farm he and his wife, Susan, maintain; to Silver's white tablecloths and elaborate tasting menus, the ingredients sourced from the best local providers.

The two chefs often collaborate for charity events, and it was at just such a dinner, hosted by Rodney Strong, that Klein suggested the two create an Iron Chef–style partnership. Take the same main ingredient, whether it be a chicken or a cheesecake, and deliver it in each man's inimitable manner.

Down Home : Downtown is the result of that pairing, and it is one of those cookbooks just as enjoyable to read as it is to open on the kitchen counter and use. Lusciously photographed by Alan Campbell and written by former San Francisco Chronicle wine editor Linda Murphy, Down Home : Downtown features recipes that a midlevel home chef can tackle and possibly even wrestle directly to the plate. What's more, it's fun to see how two different minds take the same essential ingredients and create wholly disparate end results.

Mall is informally hailed as the local king of heirloom tomatoes, and wife Susan raises some 40 different varieties of chickens. The Malls give tomato starts away at the beginning of each summer, Jeff cures his own bacon and makes his own sausage. Theirs is a haute back-to-the-land cuisine, hand-made and hand-raised and thoroughly delightful to them as an occupation.

Silver and Regina are urbanites, devoted to the pleasures of the stove and the table, their young son Jackson and the new restaurant they are preparing to launch in his name.

Where Mall uses grits, Silver uses mascarpone-infused polenta. Where Mall does rice pilaf, Silver does risotto. Where Silver serves fresh wild salmon, Mall does too; he just wraps his in bacon, a recurring ingredient and a personal obsession.

Crab will be coming into season soon and the chefs' recipes for the best use of local crab is a sterling example of the sameness and differences provided.

Jeff Mall's Dungeness Crab Stuffed Avocados with Mango & Red Chile Dressing

Red Chile Dressing

1-2 c. mayonnaise

1-4 c. Mae Ploy Sweet Chilli Sauce

grated zest and juice of 2 limes

1-4 tsp. Tabasco sauce

1 tblsp. minced fresh chives

kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Crab Salad

2 ripe avocados, halved lengthwise and pitted

1 ripe mango, peeled and cut from the pit

8 ounces fresh lump Dungeness crabmeat, picked over for shell

2 tblsp. minced fresh chives

kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

For the red chile dressing: In a small bowl, combine the mayonnaise, chilli sauce, lime zest and juice, Tabasco sauce, and chives. Stir to blend. Season with salt and pepper.

For the crab salad: Scoop the flesh from each avocado half, reserving the skin. Cut the avocado flesh and the mango flesh into 1-4 inch dice. In a medium bowl, combine the crab, mango and chives. Add all but about 1-4 cup dressing and mix gently to coat. Gently fold in the diced avocado. Place 1 avocado skin on each of 4 plates, spoon crab salad into each half (you may have extra), and drizzle with the remaining dressing.

Makes 4 first-course servings

Josh Silver's Crab Cakes with Sherry Mayonnaise

Sherry Mayonnaise

3-4 c. mayonnaise, preferably Best Foods

2 tsp. sherry vinegar

1-2 tsp. sweet Hungarian paprika

pinch of cayenne pepper

Crab Cakes

12 oz. fresh lump crabmeat, picked over for shells

1-2 c. mayonnaise, preferably Best Foods

3 tbsp. finely chopped red bell pepper

3 tbsp. finely chopped celery

2 tbsp. finely chopped red onion

1 tbsp. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

For the mayonnaise: In a small bowl, combine all the ingredients and stir to blend. Cover and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.

For the crab cakes: In a medium bowl, combine the crabmeat, mayonnaise, bell pepper, celery, onion, parsley, lemon juice, salt, and pepper; mix well. Add the panko gradually, a few tablespoons at a time, until the consistency is dry and slightly tacky to the touch.

Form into 8 cakes about 2 1-2 inches wide and coat with more panko.

In a large skillet, heat 1-4 inch oil over high heat until it shimmers.

Add the crab cakes, working in batches if necessary to avoid crowding pan. Cook until nicely browned, about 3 minutes on each side. Using a slotted metal spatula, transfer to paper towels to drain briefly. Place 2 crab cakes on each of 4 salad plates, and serve with the sherry mayonnaise on the side.

Makes 4 first-course servings

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