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Northwest Cioppino

Today I went shopping for Christmas Eve dinner. Christmas Eve is usually hectic around my house. People are taking care of last minute details, wrapping gifts, looking for something to wear, finding the last few ingredients for our holiday feasts. We look at how to fit in our dinner, after getting ready, before going to church and then coming home for treats and reading the gospel story, putting the baby Jesus in the manger, and putting the star on the Christmas tree. I want to make something special but forgiving, something that can accommodate our imperfect schedule and still taste wonderful and look festive, something that will be ready when we are, and remind us of the special moment in the year that we have arrived at. My answer to this challenge for the past several years has been Northwest Cioppino.

Northwest Cioppino is a seafood stew, rich with shellfish and salmon. It begins with an herb infused tomato base which can be prepared in advance. When it is almost dinner time, steam the mussels and/or clams, if desired, while bringing the base to a boil on the stove top (fresh shellfish are great in this recipe but Cioppino is quite delicious without them too. See note below). Add the salmon, then the shrimp and clams and the stew is ready to eat.

Cioppino and a loaf of crusty bread makes a quick and delicious meal anytime. Add a salad, pasta with pesto sauce (the green pesto along with the red stew is seasonal and pretty), a bit of antipasto for an appetizer and a simple dessert, maybe gelato and cookies, and you have a festive dinner to welcome the arrival of Christmas.

Northwest Cioppino

1 diced green pepper
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
1/2 cup dry red or white wine
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon finely chopped oregano (or 1 teaspoon dried)
1 tablespoon finely chopped basil (or 1 teaspoon dried)
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 6.5-ounce can minced clams

1 pound fresh or frozen salmon fillets, skin removed, thawed and cut into 1 inch squares
1/2 pound medium cooked shrimp, shelled and thawed

1 pound mussels and/or clams (See Note below)

In a large pot saute green pepper and onion in oil until onion is tender but not brown. Add garlic and cook for one minute. Add undrained tomatoes, tomato sauce, wine, parsley, salt, oregano, basil, and pepper. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes.

(At this point the Cioppino can be stored in the refrigerator until you are ready to prepare the meal.)

Add fish pieces, and undrained clams to the simmering tomato mixture. Bring barely back to a boil, reduce heat and cover. Simmer for 5 minutes or until fish is done.

Add thawed shrimp and steamed mussels and/or clams, if desired. Leave on the heat until they are warmed through. Serve in shallow bowls.

Serves five or six. Easily doubled.

Credits: This recipe is based on a recipe for Cioppino in a Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, "Favorite American Wines & How to Enjoy Them," published in 1979.

Note: It is not necessary to add fresh mussels or clams to this recipe. A perfectly delicious pot of Cioppino can be made without steaming fresh clams and/or mussels and sometimes a busy holiday schedule precludes the extra time and effort they require. But if you have time and interest, the shells add to the drama of the presentation and are a delicious addition to the stew.

Buy 1 pound of mussels and/or clams. Make sure to buy those with their shells tightly closed. Unwrap the shellfish as soon as you get them home, so that they can breath, and store them in the refrigerator. If any are open or their shell is cracked or damaged, discard them. Keep them cold until you are ready to prepare them. Then soak them in fresh water for 20-30 minutes. Lift the shellfish from the water and scrub their shells to remove any debris. If beards are visible grab them with a dry kitchen towel or pliers and pull sharply toward the hinge end of the mussel to remove.

Steam clams and mussels in several batches. Lightly brown one clove of minced garlic in 1 tablespoon of butter or olive oil. Add enough shellfish to cover the bottom of the pan. Toss lightly to coat the shells with oil. Add ¼ cup white wine to the pan. Cover the pan and steam for 4 or 5 minutes or until the shells have opened. Any shellfish which don’t open should be discarded.

Repeat the process for the remaining shellfish until all of it has been steamed. Store cooked shellfish in the refrigerator until ready to add them to the Cioppino in the last minute or so of cooking. Or steam the shellfish while making or reheating the tomato base. Add any cooking liquid in the pan to the Cioppino along with the mussels and clams.

Mulled Cider

Now the cookies are baked and packed away in tins. Nestled together on a festive platter this year’s assortment of Christmas cookies look appealing. Round crisp-chewy Chocolate Crinkles next to sugar coated balls of Russian Teacakes complement each other’s shape, flavor and texture. Tangy little squares of lemon-iced Thyme, Hazelnut and Lemon Cookies contrast the sharp spicy flavor, soft texture and sparkly surface of Ginger Cookie Sticks, and the smooth creamy texture of Peanut Butter Fudge. Together they offer something to tempt most any palate.

All we need now is a cup of hot spiced cider. I love to put on a pot of Mulled Cider early in the day and enjoy its scent as it slowly drifts through the house, quietly enhancing the holiday atmosphere. This recipe, fragrant with citrus, cinnamon and cloves, tastes good and looks pretty served in a glass mug. It is the perfect complement to a plate of homemade cookies.

Merry Christmas!

Mulled Cider

2 quarts apple cider
¼ cup packed brown sugar
2 sticks cinnamon
1 tsp. whole cloves
1/8 tsp. ground ginger
1 orange, sliced (unpeeled)

Combine ingredients in a slow-cooking pot. Cover and heat on low for 2 to 5 hours or longer. Serve with a ladle from the pot. Makes 10 to 12 servings.

From “Crockery Cookery” by Mable Hoffman

Thyme, Hazelnut and Lemon Cookies

What fun is a cookie baking marathon without at least one new recipe? This year I decided to try a recipe for Thyme, Hazelnut and Lemon Cookies. These cookies are based on a recipe I cut from the newspaper some time ago. It was hidden in my files, untried but still intriguing. I had lemon thyme on hand, as well as some hazelnuts, so it decided it was time to give this recipe a try.

I'm glad I did! I was intrigued by the combination of flavors suggested in the recipe and the way these flavors came together and complemented each other did create a delicious and unusual cookie. This unique recipe is a great way to use hazelnuts, locally grown in the Pacific Northwest. It is also an interesting use of thyme, a personal favorite. The result turned out to be very rewarding. These cookies are a new favorite on my Christmas baking list! I think they would also be a great addition to a spring luncheon, or served in summer with a tall glass of iced tea.

Thyme, Hazelnut and Lemon Cookies

1 3/4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup finely chopped toasted hazelnuts
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 egg
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
2 teaspoons lemon peel

In a small bowl, stir together flour, baking soda and salt. Stir in toasted hazelnuts. Set aside.

In a larger bowl, Use an electric mixer to beat together the sugar and butter until light and creamy. Continue beating with the electric beater while you add the egg, lemon juice, thyme and lemon peel.

Add the dry ingredients and mix until blended.

Divide dough into two equal portions. Form each into a long rope approximately 12 inches long and 1 - 1 1/2 inches wide. Cover each rope with waxed paper and form the dough into a square. Place the dough in the refrigerator for several hours, until firm. (At this point the dough may can be kept in the refrigerator for several days or in the freezer for up to a month.)

When you are ready to bake the cookies preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Slice the dough into 1/4 inch thick slices and place squares of dough about 1 inch apart on lightly greased baking sheet. Bake 10 - 12 minutes, or until just slightly brown. Cool on racks.

Drizzle with lemon icing if desired.

Lemon Icing

1 cup powdered sugar
1 - 1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice

Mix powdered sugar and lemon juice until smooth. Add more lemon juice, a few drops at a time, until you reach a consistency that will drizzle easily but not run.

Pour the icing into a Ziploc baggie and seal. Snip 1/8 -1/4 inch from one lower corner of the baggie and use to pipe a drizzled line of icing on each cookie using a back and forth motion.

Russian Teacakes

No cookie baking marathon at my house is complete without making at least one batch of Russian Teacakes. After putting the batter for Chocolate Crinkles in the refrigerator I made the dough for this recipe, a favorite of my family for many years.

These cookies were introduced to me by my husband. We got a Betty Crocker cookbook as a wedding present and it included a recipe for Russian Teacakes. My husband urged me to try them. He had fond memories of his mother baking Russian Teacakes for their family over the years. I tried them and they were truly wonderful!

These cookies have so much going for them. They are pretty, festive and keep well. The dough is easy to prepare and does not have to chill before shaping. I use a small cookie scoop to make the balls of dough and then place them directly on the cookie sheet. Pretty easy! And, they are 1-inch balls placed 1-inch apart so the whole batch can be baked fairly quickly.

Though my family has grown over the years, when I mention baking Christmas cookies, Russian Teacakes are still usually the first cookie my family requests. As soon as they are out of the oven and rolled in sugar my family gladly and quickly devours them. I have to be careful to tuck enough away to serve holiday guests.

Russian Teacakes

1 cup butter, softened
½ cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 ¼ cups white or whole wheat flour
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup finely chopped nuts
powdered sugar

Mix butter, ½ cup powdered sugar and vanilla in a large mixing bowl.

Combine flour, salt and nuts. Add this to the butter mixture and blend until dough holds together.

Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Place about 1 inch apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 400 degrees until set but not brown - 10 to 12 minutes.

Roll warm cookies in powdered sugar and set on a wire rack to cool. After cookies are cooled, or just before serving, roll the cookies in powdered sugar again.

Yield: approximately 4 dozen cookies.

Note: This recipe can be made with any type of nut. I generally use walnuts but if I only have pecans available I use them instead. I think almonds or hazelnuts would work equally well if finely ground.

Chocolate Crinkles

After putting my Ginger Cookie Sticks into the oven I sat down to figure out which cookie recipe I would try next. I looked through the family cookbook that I made several years ago and remembered my Aunt Hen’s Christmas cookie baking marathons. The family cookbook contains a list of cookie recipes she planned to bake the Christmas she was 83 years old. There were nineteen different recipes carefully handwritten on her tablet of lined white writing paper.

I think Aunt Hen always enjoyed baking. On many December evenings when I was a girl, I would walk to her house to help her bake cookies. Often she would work on a recipe from her list and I would make another recipe that appealed to my simpler palate. Aunt Hen liked chewy cookies made with coconut, fruit and nuts. I liked pretty chocolate or sugar cookies, without nuts, or gingerbread that was cut into shapes to construct a house or Santa’s sleigh. Aunt Hen always offered support. If she didn’t have the ingredients on hand to make the recipe I chose she would put the ingredients on her shopping list and I could make the cookies the next week. Often we completed 3 or 4 batches of cookies in an evening and stored them away in Aunt Hen’s collection of pretty holiday tins. When our baking was finished we would fill large plates with a collection of our cookies and give them to friends and neighbors.

One recipe I remember baking with Aunt Hen was Chocolate Crinkles. As I looked through my files for the recipe, I found many variations. Some used cocoa powder instead of chocolate. Some used butter or vegetable shortening instead of oil. I found this recipe, copied for me by a friend many years ago.

Note: I didn’t have any squares of unsweetened chocolate so I used 4 ounces of semisweet chocolate chips instead. While I was changing things up I decided to increase the amount of vanilla to 1 tablespoon and add 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon too. Then I omitted the nuts to make the cookies more appealing to a simpler palate.

Chocolate Crinkles

4 squares unsweetened chocolate (or 4 ounces of chocolate chips)
2 cups sugar
½ cup oil
4 eggs
2 teaspoons (or 1 Tablespoon) vanilla
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (if desired)
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup chopped walnuts (optional)
powdered sugar

Melt chocolate in the top of a double boiler or in a metal bowl over a pan of hot water. When the pieces are melted and the chocolate is smooth, blend in the oil and sugar. Add eggs, one at a time, stirring well after each addition. Add vanilla.

In a separate bowl, thoroughly combine the flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon (if desired). Add to the chocolate mixture until fully blended. Add the nuts if you like.

Chill dough for several hours or overnight. Shape into 1 inch balls and roll in powdered sugar until thoroughly coated. Place balls 2 inches apart on a greased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes.

Yield: Approximately 5 dozen.

Ginger Cookie Sticks

I loved Alanna’s comment yesterday. She said, “I always think that the first step in a cookie-baking marathon is putting on a pot of soup.” Sounds like a great idea. Soup's on! Now let’s get down to business…

Christmas is barely a week away and I have hardly started baking (or Christmas shopping, or mailing Christmas cards or … but that’s another story!) But yesterday I knew a friend was stopping by and it seemed a shame not to have some homemade Christmas cookies to share. I wondered what I could make in a hurry, dug into my file and pulled out a recipe for Ginger Cookie Sticks.

This recipe had been cut from a Family Circle magazine several years ago and I remember it having a wonderfully deep, spicy, ginger flavor. What’s more, the decorative sugar crystals on the top make it sparkle with understated festive elegance. And even better, it is a bar cookie that can be mixed, spread in the pan immediately and baked in one batch.

I guess they were a hit. Between my friends and family, most of the cookies are gone this morning. So that’s where I am starting today – Ginger Cookie Sticks: Batch 2. While they are baking I’ll work out what to try next.

Ginger Cookie Sticks

1 3/4 cups flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
2 tablespoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup molasses
2 tablespoons crystallized ginger, finely chopped
2 tablespoons coarse decorating sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line a 13x9 pan with aluminum foil. Let the foil hang over the edge slightly to make removing the hot cookies easier after baking. Coat the foil with cooking spray.

Measure flour, cornstarch, ginger, cinnamon, white pepper, cloves and salt into a bowl and mix until thoroughly combined.

Beat the butter, sugar and molasses together in a large mixing bowl until well combined and creamy.

Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture until blended. Spread batter in the prepared pan. Sprinkle the crystallized ginger pieces evenly across the top.

Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes. Gently sprinkle the coarse sugar across the top of the cookies and bake another 10 minutes or until the center is set.

Remove cookies from the oven and let cool on a wire rack. Use the foil to lift the cookies from the pan as soon as possible.

When cookies are firm, but not quite fully cooled, cut into 3 equal sections lengthwise and and crosswise at 1 inch intervals. I used a large pizza cutter being careful to gently cut through the final edge to prevent that side of the cookie from crumbling.

Great with coffee or spiced cider.

Italian Supper Soup

During December I often find myself wanting a hot nutritious dinner but having little time to prepare one. There are so many evenings out in December, running to meetings and special seasonal events. Often there are festive refreshments at these events but to leave home hungry is to risk over-indulging in calorie intensive holiday specialties. December can be hectic and when times are hectic a hot healthy dinner, especially one on the light side, can feel absolutely healing.

I cut something from the newspaper many years ago that can quickly and easily meet the requirements for those occasions. It is a recipe for Italian Supper Soup. It is a great anchor for a quick dinner. It can be prepared fairly quickly and, for the most part, in advance, with only a few steps to complete it at the last minute. It really dresses up a quick sandwich or salad or other weekday dinner fare, or it can stand alone when you want something nutritious to take the edge off your hunger before going out to a spread of rich holiday foods.

My children started calling it Christmas Soup several years ago, because of the red chunks of tomato and green leaves of spinach floating in the broth. It does offer a hint of festive color while it helps to warmly sustain us through the buildup and busyness of the season.

Italian Supper Soup

1 teaspoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 (14-ounce) cans vegetable broth
2 (16-ounce) cans cannellini beans or other white beans, rinsed and drained
1 (14-ounce) can peeled tomatoes, crushed or chopped
½ cup tiny pasta, like orzo (or 1 cup larger pasta, like penne)
¼ cup fresh basil leaves, sliced into strips
2 – 3 cups fresh spinach leaves, washed and roughly chopped

Heat the olive oil in a 4 quart soup pot. Add chopped onions and garlic and sauté until the onion is soft and translucent. Add the vegetable broth, white beans and tomatoes. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.

Cook pasta until it is almost tender. Rinse, drain and set aside.

(At this point the soup and pasta can be refrigerated until you are ready to assemble the meal.)

If the soup has been set aside bring it back to a simmer. Add the pasta and then stir in the basil and spinach, cooking just until the spinach has wilted and turned a bright green. Serve immediately. Makes 4 – 6 servings.

Peanut Butter Fudge

Aunt Hen's Kitchen

When I was a little girl I loved peanut butter. I chose to take a peanut butter sandwich to school for lunch almost every day. That was a sandwich made with a thick layer of peanut butter between two slices of white bread. Jelly was not a part of the equation. I also ate peanut butter with a spoon from the jar. Peanut butter was a staple in my diet.
So it’s really no surprise that, growing up, my favorite holiday treat was Peanut Butter Fudge. I loved the taste and soft creamy texture and I loved helping Aunt Hen make it. I felt very grown up as I stood on a stool in the kitchen so that I could stand tall enough to stir the brown sugar and cream on the stove top until it reached the soft ball stage.
Aunt Hen didn’t use a candy thermometer. She could tell when the fudge was done by the way it poured from a spoon lifted above the rim of the pot. She could tell by the thickness and texture of the pour, the way it clung to the spoon and dropped off.
I think it was mostly for my benefit that she also proved it was ready in a teacup of cold water. When the boil changed and the syrup thickened slightly my aunt would test for the soft ball stage by dropping a scant spoonful into the water and dabbing it together with her fingers. If it held and formed a smooth ball that didn’t fall apart and could be shaped with your fingers like soft dough, it was ready to be taken from the heat. Then the peanut butter, marshmallow cream and vanilla were stirred in and the mixture was left on the breezeway to cool.

The Best Part

After a while Aunt Hen would check the fudge. She would lay the open palm of her hand against the bottom of the pot. If she could hold it there the fudge was ready. When I tried it always still felt hot to me but my aunt knew what she was looking for. When the pot was the right temperature, we would bring it into the house and stir it. We stirred until the fudge became almost too thick to pour and then spread it in a greased 8-inch square pan before taking it back to the breezeway to firmly set.
Back in the house was the very best part. My aunt would let me take the empty fudge pot and taste any bits that had been left on the side or on the spoon. There was always enough left to satisfy and it tasted all the better for being warm and for the effort of scraping it from the pot. Sometimes I would share a taste but mostly it was mine, for helping, and being there to share the work.
Finally, when the fudge was set, we would cut it and put it away in a pretty Christmas tin, nestled between layers of waxed paper. Then I could taste a finished piece. No matter how it turned out it was always divine! I think it was because of the magic of Aunt Hen’s kitchen. Busy, messy, warm, accepting and productive, that was one of my favorite places to spend time as I was growing up.
Now I make Peanut Butter Fudge every Christmas season in my own kitchen. This year I have made three batches already and I’m sure I will make more. The memories are a blessing and the fudge is enjoyed as much by my friends and family as it was by an earlier generation who gathered around Aunt Hen's table.

Peanut Butter Fudge
from Aunt Hen's kitchen

2 cups light brown sugar
2/3 cups milk or light cream
1 cup marshmallow cream
1 cup peanut butter
1 teaspoon vanilla

Combine the brown sugar and milk or cream in a large (3 or 4 quart) saucepan. Bring to a boil. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture reaches the soft ball stage (236-240 degrees F, I do use a candy thermometer) when tried in ice cold water.

Remove from heat and add marshmallow cream, peanut butter (use the crunchy kind if you like) and vanilla.

Let cool slightly (My aunt's test was to let it cool until you could hold your hand on the bottom of the pan. My experience is that her hands were tougher than mine! My pot is still hot when I begin stirring but is cool enough not to actually burn me as I hold it to stir the fudge). Beat until thick and creamy - almost too thick to stir.

Smooth into buttered pan.  When fudge is set, cut into squares.


Note: Instead of pouring the beaten fudge into a pan to set, Peanut Butter Fudge can also be molded into holiday shapes and decorated for special occasions.  I have used this recipe to make Peanut Butter Fudge Easter Eggs and chocolate topped Peanut Butter Fudge Cutouts for special occasion novelties and gifts.