Embracing new Christmas traditions: Cioppino

Every Christmas Eve, J’s family, a somewhat traditional, South Philly Italian group, gathers for a seven fishes meal. I say ‘somewhat’ because they don’t use all of the traditional fishes normally served and most are typically fried. One of the biggest problems, however, is the lack of room everyone has after this fried fish feast for J’s mom’s delectable stromboli. This year, it was decided that something had to change. The fish portion of the meal needed to be lighter so that we have room for layers of cheese, meat, and doughy delight.

After much discussion and debate over appropriate recipes and presentation options, J and his folks agreed on cioppino, a California fishermen’s stew. At Thanksgiving, we agreed to cook this complicated dish for the family Christmas Eve.

Two weeks ago, J and I gathered clams, jumbo lump crab meat, mussels, cod, mahi, shrimp, and scallops, bottles of clam juice and pinot grigio, fresh herbs, and freshly made shrimp stock. We also gathered our nerve, for a lot was riding on the success of this dish. If we succeeded, we may be starting a new Christmas Eve food tradition in J’s family. That is a heavy and exciting burden.

If you’ve never made it, cioppino is a complex stew that involves accurate prep, fresh ingredients, several hours, lots of careful reduction, and precise timing when adding the fish so as not to overcook any one kind. But J and I are confident cooks and embraced the challenge with the abandon of fearless food lovers…and our first attempt was wildly successful! J’s parents enjoyed the deeply flavorful and satisfying concoction and so now we are set to make the dish tonight for the family.

Cooking for family and friends is always satisfying, and traditions are important, but when we are gifted the rare opportunity to change a central family food tradition, it should be handled with respect and love and fresh ingredients in the hopes that everyone embraces the new.

Happy Christmas Eve, everyone, and please share: What new family food traditions will you attempt this year?