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Cioppino...Italian Seafood Stew

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Cioppino, or Italian seafood stew, is as varied as the individuals who prepare it. Generally speaking, it is based in a tomato seafood broth, with various fish and shellfish added along with onions and perhaps other vegetables. Seasonings logically trend toward Italian style flavors, but even those are open to interpretation by the chef. Virtually ANY seafood can be used, and vegetables may vary as well. Use what you like and allow for seasonal variations. This recipe is my version made with fresh ingredients available to me at this time of year...enjoy!

2 quarts seafood stock (instructions below)
15 Crawfish, whole
20 or so whole black peppercorns
1 Tablespoon dried red pepper flakes
2 dry bay leaves
1 pound Shrimp
1 pound Flounder or other white fish fillets such as Sole or Cod
½ pound Ahi Tuna
10 fresh Roma tomatoes
1 whole medium sized yellow onion, coarsely chopped
3 cups finely chopped fresh kale
¼ cup tomato paste
5 cloves fresh garlic
1 Tablespoon dried basil, or 1 Tablespoon fresh finely chopped basil
½ teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon sea salt

Shopping for the ingredients is entertaining in itself. Seafood is definitely best when purchased as fresh as possible, so seeking out a market with a variety of fresh choices can be really fun. In our area, we are fortunate to have several small markets specializing in ethnic foods and fresh seafoods of countless varieties. Very often the prices are significantly lower than we find at the larger chain supermarkets, and the seafood is most often fresher. We much prefer to bring home fresh shellfish and cook them in their shells for the amazing flavor it imparts, and filleting a fish yourself is not only easy to learn but also results in a much fresher flavor. Of course, if time is an issue or if you just don't want the experience of starting that much from scratch, you certainly may start with fresh or frozen fish fillets and shellfish meats.

Now, let's get on with putting this stew together!

First, in a large skillet place the crawfish and about ¼ cup of water over high heat with a lid on. Steam for about three minutes until warm all the way through. Pull the tails off and tug the tail meat out, setting it aside in a bowl.

Next, the shrimp. If your shrimp are UNcooked, toss them right into that skillet you just used for the crawfish. Over a medium high heat, sautee them for a couple minutes until they turn pink. Remove from heat and pull off the heads, tails and skin. Set those waste portions aside for your stock, and add the meat portions to the crawfish meat in the bowl.

Now, making the stock. You can start with a commercial seafood stock, but it is quite simple to make your own. Here is how to do it:

In a large stock pot:
1 bare chicken carcass or several chicken bones leftover from a previous meal (See “A wealth of leftovers” for tips on saving items for making stock)
the crawfish and shrimp shells
the 20 or so whole black peppercorns
the 1 Tablespoon of red pepper flakes
the 2 bay leaves
Don't be afraid to squish the ingredients down so they all fit into the pot, fill with water to cover, then cover with a lid. Bring to boil then turn down to a “barely bubbling simmer” and leave it for several hours. Now and then, give the contents of the pot a stir and notice how it all begins to crumble down. The broth will begin to take on a little bit of color, and by now your whole kitchen will smell fantastic! I like to let my stock just simmer for about four hours.

By now you may be wondering why in the world there are CHICKEN bones in the seafood stock. The reason is that chicken adds a mild flavor underlying all that seafood, plus also adds a bit of fat. This produces a nice rich broth with lots of flavor.

While the stock is simmering, you can prepare the other ingredients.

Cut the Flounder and Ahi tuna fillets into roughly one inch chunks. I really prefer to leave the fish portions larger so that as they sit in the stew they hold their shape and do not crumble into oblivion. In a bowl, place all the seafood and toss with a light sprinkling of lemon juice to keep it fresh. Place this in the fridge to stay cold until your stock is ready. *Never leave seafood sitting out unrefrigerated to avoid the possibility of bacteria growing.

Chop your onion, kale, tomatoes, and garlic:

  • The onion needs only to be coarse chopped so that it doesn't just disappear into the stew.
  • The kale should be chopped more finely, so that it is not awkward on your spoon in the finished stew. Ever tried scooping up a bite of stew and a long piece of cooked green refused to cooperate by containing itself on your spoon? Yeah...you see the point.
  • The tomatoes likewise just need to be quartered and then cut into thirds or halves. They will cook down a good bit in the hot stew and once again, we do not want them to pull a vanishing act on us!
  • For the garlic, the old “smash and chop” method works great. Just peel the cloves, lay the side of your chef knife blade over them and using the heel of your hand press the side of that blade down to smash the garlic. Then give it a little extra chop and you're ready to go!

These can all be placed in another bowl in the fridge to keep the seafood company until that stock is ready to go.

Tick...tock...tick...tock...DING!!!

At last, your stock seems about ready and so let's get this show on the road. Set yourself up another pot or large bowl and a colander. Set the colander in or over the pot or bowl and carefully pour your stock through the colander. The idea is to remove all of the bones, shells, etc from your broth. *If you happen to keep a compost area for a garden, those shells are an excellent addition to the pile! Just keep the chicken bones out...your garden will love the seafood carcasses.

Return the stock to a medium high heat. Add the tomato paste and spices, stirring well to mix thoroughly. The broth will take on a slightly reddish color but is NOT intended to thicken. This is a stew broth, not a sauce.

Drop in the bowl of vegetables and stir a bit. Bring the broth to a gentle boil and then add the bowl of seafood. Turn the heat down to simmer and cover with a lid. The idea is that the seafood will cook rather quickly in the very hot broth, but not be pulverized to shreds by the broth remaining at too aggressive a boil.

I recommend leaving the stew for ten or fifteen minutes before adding any more salt or seasonings, then taste the broth. I often do add more fresh ground black pepper, salt, and/or paprika depending on how the flavor has developed. If you enjoy a little more spicy bite to your stew, feel free to drop in a pinch of cayenne or a shake or Tobasco hot sauce.

Serve nice and hot, perhaps with a slice of crisp toasted French bread or homemade chewy herbed breadsticks. And see? You have created a fabulous, nutritious Italian seafood stew from scratch that will amaze your guests. Enjoy!

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