Friday, December 28, 2012

Christmas Cioppino

I have childhood memories of Christmas Eve suppers with Mom’s homemade soup, usually a vegetable beef blend, simmered slowly on the stove and accompanied by fragrant loaves of white bread, still warm from the oven. Decades later I continue the family soup and bread supper tradition, but now we enjoy a NorthWest cioppino with crusty sourdough loaves. I tried to follow tradition for Christmas Eve 2012, but life got in the way.

On the morning of the 24th I made an early-morning run to my favorite seafood market, Mutual Fish, at least I thought it was early. Customers must have lined up very early that morning, long before the usual 8:30 opening. As I pulled plastic tag number 54 to mark my place in line, tag number 4 was called – and Mutual had run through an entire set of 100 tags once already prior to this round! The minutes flew by as I hung out, made new friends, compared recipes with strangers, and marveled at the patience and good cheer shown by everyone in that crowded market. Finally it was my turn at the counter. Soon small packages of cod, shrimp, crab, scallops, calamari and clams went into a sack and traveled home in my cooler. The seafood went directly into the refrigerator and I went directly to bed... damned flu bug! I should be recovering, not relapsing. Niece H phoned to report her last-minute call out on a 3-day trip, and our Christmas Eve supper was officially postponed until later in the week... whenever. 

About that fresh seafood... clams prefer an underwater life, don't like to hang out in the fridge very long, and certainly don't improve with age. So we had a simple supper that night, eating a few clams steamed with wine, diced chorizo, peppers and aromatics. The uneaten clams were scooped from their shells, the broth reserved, and all of the seafood tossed into the freezer until that indefinite later in the week

Fast forward to later in the week when H returned home and my flu bug was less pesky. We celebrated being together for the holiday and enjoyed a new recipe for an old favorite, cioppino. Fresh seafood is always the best, but recently-frozen worked out just fine for this holiday.

Christmas 2012 Cioppino
serves 6+

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large fennel bulb, thinly sliced
1 onion, chopped
1 sweet red pepper, chopped
1 large leek, halved lengthwise and cut in half-moons
2 teaspoons salt
4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
3/4 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper flakes, plus more to taste
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes in juice
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
5 cups fish stock (or use clam broth and chicken stock)
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon each fresh thyme and oregano 
2 pounds manila clams, scrubbed
1.5 pound firm fish fillets (halibut, cod, etc) cut into 2-inch chunks
1 pound uncooked large shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 pound mixed scallops and calamari
1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley, rough chopped
Dungeness crab meat sauteed in butter  (optional garnish)

Heat the oil in a very large stock pot or dutch oven over medium heat. Add the fennel, onion, red pepper, leek, and salt and saute until the onion is translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and 3/4 teaspoon of red pepper flakes, and saute until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste. Add tomatoes with their juices, wine, fish stock, bay leaf, thyme and oregano. Cover and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer, covered, until the flavors blend, at least 30 minutes. (I like to make the broth a day in advance, then reheat before proceding on.)

Add the clams and to the cooking liquid (or cook the clams separately and add to each bowl before serving.) Cover and cook until the clams begin to open, about 5 minutes. Add the fish, shrimp, scallops and calamari. Simmer gently until the seafood is just cooked through, and the clams are completely open, stirring gently, a few minutes longer (discard any clams that do not open). Season the soup, to taste, with more salt and red pepper flakes.

Optional topping: melt a tablespoon or two of butter in a small saute pan over medium heat. When bubbling add chunks of Dungeness crab meat or additional prawns and cook briefly. Sprinkle with a pinch of cayenne or pimento if you like.

Ladle the soup into bowls, add the clams if you cooked them separately, sprinkle with the chopped parsley, add a small mound of warmed crab chunks and serve with crusty bread. Add a green salad and a glass of wine and there's a dinner to celebrate any holiday or special event.

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