New Year's Eve is not typically a big food holiday.
For most of our national celebrations – Thanksgiving, Fourth Of July, just about any religious holiday – there's a general meal plan. Wrestle with a turkey or grill up some hot dogs and you're set.
Not so New Year's Eve. A holiday most of us associate with too much Champagne and poor decisions, it doesn't come with handed-down food traditions. And that's too bad; a year-end celebration calls out for something special, something that's easy to prepare and fun to eat, and something rich (or expensive) enough that it feels right to only make it once a year. I'm here to tell you that thing is crab cioppino.
My family didn't have many traditions we kept to, but the annual New Year's Eve cioppino was one we never missed. As far back as my brother and I can remember, our mother would spend the days leading up to the 31st gathering ingredients and sourcing seafood (not always an easy task in Colorado back then) and saving the day's newspapers (you'll see why in a minute). It was an idea my parents picked up as young newlyweds in San Francisco, in a book of recipes from the city's firehouses.
Cioppino is a simple seafood stew, similar to an Italian brodetto, that came to the New World in the late 1800's and morphed slightly on arrival, as things tend to do. The base is a rich tomato broth with a hit of white wine and herbs, but what makes it extravagant is the seafood: Use the absolute freshest you can find, and the place to really splurge is the crab. The nutty flavor of dungeness (fresh, if you can manage it) pairs beautifully with the slightly spicy broth.
What earns this dish the title of Best-Ever Thing For New Year's Eve is how much fun it is to eat. There's no refined way to get at that crab, and this is where the newspapers come in. Our mother would cover the whole table with them, and some years hand out bibs she'd picked up somewhere. By the end of the meal, the dinner table was always the scene of horrific crustacean wreckage, discarded shells and hollow crab claws (my brother would clean and dry them to use as toys) littered about. It should not be a dignified meal; if you leave the table without sauce under your fingernails, you're doing it wrong.
To help with planning, the broth can be made ahead of time.
You will need:
1/2 cup olive oil
2 large onions, chopped
5 stalks celery, thinly sliced
4 medium carrots, thinly sliced
1 small bulb of fennel, trimmed and chopped
1 large leek, trimmed, cleaned and chopped
1 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 large clove garlic, chopped
2 28 ounce cans whole or crushed tomatoes (I like whole San Marzanos, hand-squished in a bowl and with the stems and basil leaves removed)
2 tbsp. tomato paste
1/8 teaspoon each crumbled dried thyme, rosemary and sage
2 pinches of red pepper flakes
1 bay leaf
1 dungeness crab
1 pound bay scallops
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 pound each of clams and mussels, washed
1 1/2 pounds fillet of cod (other white fish works, too), cut into large chunks
1/3 cup dry white wine
Additional salt and pepper to taste
Additional chopped fresh parsley
1 large loaf of sourdough
Large stock pot, at least 8 quarts
Newspaper (to cover the table)
1. First, the broth base. In a large pot, heat the 1/2 cup of olive oil over medium. When ready, sauté the onions for a few minutes, stirring often, until they start to soften. Then add the carrots, celery, fennel, leeks, garlic and parsley and cook for about another 5 minutes. Dump in the tomatoes, tomato paste, water, thyme, rosemary, sage, red pepper and bay leaf. Simmer for at least an hour, longer if you've got it. You're aiming for a fairly thick broth, but keep an eye on it and add water as needed.
2. Now comes the seafood: Nestle the crab into the bubbling broth and top with cockles. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. When done, remove the crab and set aside in a bowl. Then add the shrimp, scallops and top with fish, and simmer for 10 more minutes. As Treganza says at this point, "Do not stir, but gently shake the pot occasionally." This will keep the fish more intact.) When those are done, add the crab back to the pot with wine and salt and pepper to taste, simmer a few minutes more.
3. Ladle into heaping bowls, sprinkle with parsley and served with a good, large loaf of sourdough and plenty of napkins.