The Christmas celebration is now two days past. Rolling into view is New Year's Eve. For me, this means an especially unique event is yet to arrive: Cioppino Night, our family's annual traditional meal.
A little background:
Locally here in Monterey, fishermen from Sicily began to immigrate in about 1895 until - at the peak of settlement - 1930 or so. The sardine industry was at its most ferocious level of activity in the 30s and 40s, and scores of Sicilian families owned fishing boats and then canneries and related businesses. This was true up and down the California coast including San Francisco where cioppino was "invented."
Basically, the lore that has been passed down tells us that at the end of their long arduous fishing days, the Sicilian fishermen ate some of the nonmarketable fish catch themselves, throwing many hunks of what extra seafood they had into a large stew pot of basic tomato sauce. That was accompanied by coarse bread, pasta of course and red wine. That's it. Simplicity ruled the day because the men were poor and probably only had the most basic cooking tools on board. But, simplicity is far from boring in this case. Cioppino is a slurpy, engaging and deliciously unique one-dish meal that takes time to eat. Sleeves are rolled up, bibs tied on and everyone toasts everyone else. You can't rush the cooking and you can't rush the eating. But why would you want to?
Since most Sicilian fishermen were Catholic and were in the habit of abstaining from meat before a Holy Day of Obligation or Feast Day, their families eventually began a local tradition of having a lavish seafood dinner on Christmas Eve. Being Sicilian, flavors were robust and wonderful. Cioppino filled the bill perfectly for local families who were bent on celebration and yet had to observe the restriction on eating meat. The flavorful seafood dish is now very popular to cook during the Christmas holiday season when dungeness crab is in season. Dungeness is a meaty and flavorful crustacean, yielding a lot of tender meat per crab. You can bet that in every home that's serving it this December, you hear loud conversation, laughter, clattering dishes, clinking glasses and satisfied groans at the end of the meal.
Our family got together to have our annual cioppino feast on Christmas Eve for years. Now, to avoid schedule and travel difficulties at Christmas Eve, we've moved the feast to the weekend closest to New Year's Eve. The meal is rustic in style, local in origin and our longest-standing family tradition. Planning and preparation has begun already; everyone takes part in some way.
Cioppino is best eaten with the hands, and it's messy but fun. The traditional cioppino made here includes dungeness crab and large prawns in a hearty, somewhat spicy sauce. Large bowls of steaming seafood are consumed and other bowls fill steadily with shells sucked clean of meat and sauce. Other items on the menu are a simple crusty bread, pasta noodles, wine, salad and Sicilian cookies for dessert with coffee. I'd share the recipe here, but unless you've got the taste and fragrance deeply set in your memory, my guess is that it would not be the same. So, someday I'll cook some for you so you can learn the real way - by experience. There's no other way.
A la famiglia!
Causes Christine Bottaro Supports
The Nature Conservancy, California State Parks, The United Way