THE BEST Cioppino - Easy, too!

Still overcoming my "please-no-more-meat" feeling, cioppino fit the bill perfectly for dinner last night. We stopped at Whole Foods in Town & Country to pick up the seafood loot, and I must applaud the fishmonger. He inspected every single clam and mussel to ensure we got all "good ones" that would open. This is precisely why we shop at WFs versus normal grocery stores. They care!

This was originally a Gourmet recipe that I've significantly modified over the years. It's extremely flexible to whatever veggies you have in the frig and whatever fish is best at the market. An impressive, company-worthy stew that's easily prepared, and I recommend simmering the tomato base ahead to concentrate the flavors. It's rustic comfort food, slightly zesty, thick, and reminiscent of what you'd find in San Francisco. The secrets to this are using the freshest fish you can find and a chewy sourdough bread to sop up the sauce. Other than a green salad, you need nothing else but a hearty appetite. Don't forget a bowl for the shells. Bon Appetite!

Generously serves 8

4 large garlic cloves, minced
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 T oregano, crumbled
1 t dried rosemary
1 T dried thyme
1 t dried hot red pepper flakes
1 1/2 t salt
1/2 t freshly ground black pepper
2 T cup olive oil
1 red bell pepper, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 large bulb fennel, cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
2 cans fire-roasted diced tomatoes
1 bottle clam juice
2 cups tomato or marinara sauce
16 hard-shelled clams (about 1 1/2 pound) such as littlenecks, scrubbed
16 mussels, scrubbed
3/4 pound skinless halibut fillets, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 pound large shrimp, shelled (tails and bottom segment of shells left intact) and deveined
3/4 pound sea scallops, tough muscle removed from side of each
1 pound crabmeat
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Cook garlic, onions, celery, bay leaf, herbs, and red pepper flakes with salt and pepper in oil in an 8-quart heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring, until vegetables are softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in bell pepper, fennel, and tomato paste and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add wine and boil until reduced by about half, 5 to 6 minutes. Add tomatoes with their juice and clam juice and simmer, covered, 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. This can be made 1 day ahead. Cool, uncovered, then chill, covered. Bring to a simmer before adding seafood

Add clams to stew and simmer, covered, until clams open about10 minutes, checking every minute after 5 minutes and transferring opened clams to a bowl with tongs or a slotted spoon. (Discard any unopened clams after 10 minutes.) Add mussels and remaining seafood and fish to stew, simmer, covered, until mussels open and the fish is just cooked through, about 5 minutes. Discard bay leaf, then return clams to pot and gently stir in parsley.

Serve cioppino immediately in large soup bowls with crusty bread.

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