In many European cultures, it's tradition to eat seafood on Christmas Eve. My family's Hungarian traditions always had us eating some sort of fried fish or stew. Italians particularly hold this tradition to the extreme, eating anywhere from 7 to 13 different types of seafood dishes for dinner. It's called the Feast of the Seven Fishes. The odd numbers have symbolic meaning in both Catholicism and numerology. Seven represents the seven sacraments—and sins. In numerology, seven represents perfection. I find that seafood stews are some of the most hearty and satisfying of all the fish dishes. One seafood stew that I find most special is Cioppino, a true Italian-American invention.
Created by Italian immigrants in San Francisco, Cioppino was first made out of necessity. The Italian fisherman made it for lunch on their boats with whatever catch of that day. Now Cioppino has become so famous that it can be found on restaurant menus throughout San Francisco and beyond. Supposedly the word Cioppino comes from the word ciuppin, which in the Ligurian dialect means "to chop," since the seafood that goes into the stew is typically cut into manageable pieces. But the soup/stew can contain more than just chopped fish. Clams, mussels, and other shellfish make great additions, rounding out the wonderful sea flavor of this tomato-based soup.
This recipe has no less than seven types of seafood, including clams, mussels, crab, scallops, tilapia, catfish, and shrimp. The base begins with sauteing onions and fennel. The pot is deglazed with a bit of the star anise liqueur Pernod along with white wine. These anise flavors are a wonderful complement to seafood. I follow tradition and do not crack the crab or shell the shrimp. Of course this makes for a bit of messy eating, but more flavor is extracted from the seafood. Don't forget to serve this stew with sourdough bread, a San Franciscan specialty. Not only is this seafood stew symbolically appropriate for this Christmas Eve dinner, but it's also undoubtedly delicious.
Feast of the Seven Fishes Cioppino
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 yellow onions, finely chopped
1 large fennel bulb, cored and thinly sliced, fronds reserved for garnish
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon crushed red-pepper flakes
1/4 cup Pernod
1-1/2 cups dry white wine, such as Pinot Grigio
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice
2 cups clam juice (from 2 8-ounce bottles)
5 cups fish stock or water
1 bay leaf
12 little neck clams (about 1 to 1-1/2 pounds), scrubbed
24 mussels (about 1 pound), scrubbed and debearded
1 (1-pound) King crab leg (defrosted, if frozen), scrubbed and cut into 3-inch sections
1 pound scallops (about 12), abductor muscle removed
1 pound assorted firm, white-fleshed fish fillets, such as tilapia, catfish, halibut, and/or cod, cut into 1-1/2-inch pieces
1 pound medium shrimp (about 30), deveined, shells intact
Sourdough bread, for serving
Warm oil in a vary large pot over medium heat. Add onions, fennel, and garlic. Season with salt. Sauté until vegetables are soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add red-pepper flakes. Stir in tomato paste. Add Pernod and wine and bring to a boil. Simmer vigorously for 5 minutes to cook off alcohol.
Add tomatoes with their juice, clam juice, fish stock, and bay leaf. Bring back to a simmer. Reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Check seasoning.
Add clams, mussels, and crab. Cover and cook until clams and mussels begin to open, about 5 minutes.
Season scallops, fish, and shrimp with salt and nestle in stew. Cover and cook just until scallops and fish have turned opaque and shrimp pink, about 5 minutes. Check seasoning. Stir very carefully so not to break up fish.
To serve, divide seafood into bowls and ladle over with broth and vegetables. Garnish with fennel fronds and serve with sourdough bread. Yield: 6 servings.