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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.

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