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Cioppino—My Favorite Christmas Eve Supper

What is your traditional Christmas Eve meal? When I was growing up, my mother always made oyster stew. When my husband and I were first married, I followed her traditions I grew up with. Then, it hit me like a ton of bricks! “I don’t like oyster stew. Why am I making it?” I experimented for a while with a variety of different recipes—everything from an assortment of hors d’oeuvres to lobster bisque; but, over time, my family voted—we have cioppino on Christmas Eve. Cioppino is a fish stew made with a variety of shellfish, tomatoes, onions, garlic, wine, and spices. It is similar to bouillabaisse but less expensive to prepare as bouillabaisse is made with Pernod and saffron, which are both pretty pricey.   Many food historians believe this tasty stew originated in the San Francisco Bay area where legend has it that Italian and Portuguese fishermen prepared cioppino on their fishing boats with the catch of the day—straight from the Bay waters.

Although unknown outside the Bay Area until after World War II, recipes for cioppino first appeared in American cookbooks as early as 1918. Some historians theorize that the name came from the foreign slang for “chip-in-o” or chip in, as fishermen partaking in the soup were expected to contribute some of their catch to the pot. However, since cioppino evolved from a dish brought to California by Northern Italian immigrant fishermen, others believe it might be a corruption of the Genovese word for suppin or “little soup”. I love making this versatile dish because we shop the fish specials in town and make it with our own “catch of the day.” Its presentation is stunning, mixed with a variety of colors and textures—red King crab claws; chunks of flaky, white fish; pink-tinged, curled shrimp; sumptuous black mussels with their shells gaping open; and warm, chunky tomato sauce chock full of onions, celery, and green peppers.

Since the shellfish require a hands-on approach, serving cioppino lends a relaxed, casual atmosphere to our time together. Sourdough bread is the perfect accompaniment as the broth is so good, we don’t want to leave any behind. Be sure to have lots of napkins on hand. Eating this stew can get quite messy.

If you want to change your traditional Christmas Eve supper, try my recipe for cioppino. I’m sure it will be as big a hit with your family as it is mine. If you want to stick with your traditions, this stew is the perfect comfort food on cold winter nights. If you make it, be sure to have lots of napkins on hand. Eating cioppino can get quite messy.

Carol Ann’s Cioppino Serves 6

You can prepare the broth for this recipe a day or two ahead, reheat it, and add the shellfish right before serving. Most cioppino recipes use clams. My family is partial to mussels, so I use them as a substitute. Most supermarkets sell lump crab in a can. This makes a nice substitute for crab claws, which can be unaffordable these days. Since this dish is so versatile, you can replace any fish in the recipe with your own “catch of the day”. I’ve never made cioppino the same way twice. That’s what makes it fun. Also, if you’re not fond of thyme, you can substitute another spice, like basil, oregano, or parsley.  If the broth seems a bit thick or you want to spruce up the flavor, add more wine. The bottle is open anyway.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 2 cups white onion, chopped 2 cups celery, chopped 2 cups green bell pepper, cored and chopped 4 teaspoons minced garlic 2 cans (10-ounces) diced tomatoes with green chiles 1 cup canned chicken broth 1 can (6-ounces) tomato paste 1 ½ cups tomato sauce 1 cup dry white wine 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar 1 teaspoon dried thyme ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes 1 ½ pounds mussels, scrubbed 1 pound large shrimp, peeled and de-veined 1 pound bay scallops, rinsed 1 ½ pounds halibut, cut into 1-inch cubes 2 pounds King crab claws

In a large kettle, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add onion, celery, bell pepper, and garlic and sauté until vegetables are tender, about 5 minutes. To the same kettle, add tomatoes, chicken broth, tomato paste, tomato sauce, wine, red wine vinegar, thyme, and red pepper flakes. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer 20 to 30 minutes. Add mussels, shrimp, scallops, halibut, and crab claws and simmer until halibut flakes easily when pierced with a fork, mussels have opened their shells, shrimp is pink, and crab claws are cooked through.

Shopping for mussels: Look for clean, whole shells that have not been chipped, broken, or smashed. Good mussels should look wet and smell like the ocean—salty and clean. If they smell bad, pass. Shells should be tightly closed and never open. A gaping shell means the animal is dead. Ask the fishmonger to pack shellfish on ice for the ride home. It is best to buy mussels the same day you plan to use them.

Storing fresh mussels: Mussels need to be kept cold and moist until they are cooked, but they also need to breathe. Once home, remove them from the package and place them in a large bowl. Cover with a wet paper towel and refrigerate until ready to use.

Cleaning fresh mussels: Frozen mussels are usually cleaned before freezing. If you are buying fresh mussels, they need to be cleaned before cooking. Fill a large bowl with cold water and a 1/3 cup of flour. Add the mussels and soak them for about 30 minutes. They will take in fresh water and expel any dirt that’s settled inside. Using a stiff brush, place mussels under a slow stream of cold water and scrub the shells. Each mussel has a beard, the stringy group of fibers located between the shells, which must be removed. Gently pull the fibers from the mussel. If the beard is stubborn and difficult to remove, a pair of pliers works nicely.

Tips on eating mussels: If the shells of mussels do not open after cooking, discard them. They are not safe to eat.

Tips on buying shrimp: Fresh versus Frozen. Fishermen put shrimp on ice as soon as they are caught. This preserves the shrimp, freezing them so they are just-caught fresh until they are thawed. The fresh shrimp you see on ice in the seafood counter at your supermarket were most likely once frozen and are thawing in the counter. The longer they are on the counter, the less fresh they will be. Unless you know that the fresh shrimp you are buying is fresh off the boat, frozen shrimp is a better choice.

Wild-Caught or Farm-Raised: Wild-caught shrimp have a sharper, more shrimpy taste; however, they are pricier and harder to find. Ninety percent of shrimp sold in the United States is imported from Southeast Asia, Ecuador, and India; and the majority of that is farm-raised. Your supermarket is required to divulge the country of origin and whether shrimp is wild or farmed. Check the label. If you have doubts, farm-raised shrimp cultivated under cleaner standards will bear a “Best Aquaculture Practices” label. The certification label to look for when buying wild shrimp is “Marine Stewardship Council Approved.”

The most common imported shrimp sold in the supermarket are white vannemei and tiger shrimp from Asia. The most common domestic varieties are white and pink shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico. If I have a choice, I prefer pink shrimp.

Do not purchase frozen shrimp that have dry spots on their shells. This is a sign of freezer burn. Except for the black tiger variety of shrimp, black spots on shells are an indication of spoilage. Signs of yellow or grit on the shells could mean the shrimp have been bleached to remove black spots. Avoid shrimp that smell like ammonia or feel soft or slimy.

Tips on de-veining shrimp: Unless you are cooking with very small shrimp, they must be de-veined. The intestinal tract on medium to large shrimp runs down their back and is quite unappetizing. To de-vein shrimp, hold them under a slow stream of cold water and run the tip of an ice pick or sharp knife down their back, scraping out the intestine, yet leaving the shrimp intact. Rinse gently to remove any black from the shrimp.

Tips on buying unsoaked shrimp and scallops: Shrimp and scallops are often soaked in a solution of water and tripolyphosphate. This does extend their shelf life but hurts their flavor. If available, buy the unsoaked or “dry” variety. They have a superior taste. If scallops have a pure white color, they have probably been soaked. Your supermarket is required by law to tell you whether fish has been soaked in this solution. Soaked scallops are often referred to as “wet”.

Tips on buying scallops: Fresh scallops will look moist but not milky. A feathery white surface is a sign of freezer burn. Scallops should smell sweet and a bit like seaweed. Pass on scallops that smell like iodine. Avoid scallops that appear dry or have brown edges. Fresh scallops are very perishable. Buy them the same day you plan to use them. The off-white, cork-shaped Northeastern Bay scallop is thought to be the most flavorful. It is found in a small area between Long Island and Cape Cod and has a short season—November through February. This is the best scallop for eating raw.

Tips for storing scallops: Some fresh fish, especially scallops, often leak on the way home from the supermarket. Placing them in plastic bags avoids leaks that can cross-contaminate other foods and keeps any leaking mess contained. Once home, I usually store scallops in plastic bags in the refrigerator as well for the same reason. If the scallops you purchase are in a plastic bag, place them in a bowl of ice and store them in the coldest part of your refrigerator. Don’t let the scallops come into contact with the ice as it will destroy the texture and flavor of the fish.

Tips on handling scallops: Scallops must always be rinsed before using.

Tips on buying cod: Always buy fresh fish that has been refrigerated or properly iced. The best fish is the freshest, no more than 2 to 3 days out of the water. When shopping for any fresh fish, shop with your eyes and nose. Fresh fish should have a firm texture and moist appearance. Avoid fish that is dry and brown around the edges. Fresh fish never smells “fishy” but has a fresh, mild odor. Fish only smells “fishy” or like ammonia when it starts to decompose.

Tips on buying crab: Cooked, ready-to-eat crab is available at your supermarket either fresh, frozen, or pasteurized in cans. Crab should feel cold to the touch when you purchase it. Any exposed meat should be white in color. If you are buying frozen, check the package for ice crystals. This is a sign of freezer burn. Most Alaskan King crab legs sold in the supermarket are slightly pre-cooked, then frozen. Ask your fishmonger if the crab you are purchasing has been slightly cooked. This is important because it is easy to overcook pre-cooked crab.

Tips on cooking crab: When cooking with partially cooked crab, the best results are obtained by thawing crab legs or claws and adding them at the last moment, cooking just until heated through, and then serving immediately.

Carol Ann


Carol Ann Kates is the award-winning author of cookbook, Secret Recipes from the Corner Market and Insider Grocery Shopping Secrets. She’s an expert in how to shop, select, and store produce for maximizing home cooking outcomes and minimizing time and money spent. As a former supermarket and deli operator, Carol Ann shares grocery-insider wisdom—the same expertise you used to receive when patronizing a mom-and-pop establishment. Contact her at CarolAnn@CarolAnnKates.com and explore her website, www.CarolAnnKates.com.

Copyright 2021 All Rights Reserved Carol Ann Kates

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