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Eric Akis: For seafood lovers, a tasty stew for Valentine's

Cioppino, a type of seafood stew, is a warming dish perfect for winter that’s special enough to suit Valentine's Day — or any other occasion.
A serving of cioppino, a tomatoey stew rich with seafood, including prawns, scallops, mussels and fish. ERIC AKIS

If your partner and you enjoy seafood and want to enjoy some for Valentine’s dinner this Wednesday, make cioppino (pronounced “chuh-PEE-noh).” It’s a warming dish perfect for winter that’s special enough to suit the occasion that you can partially prepare in advance and quickly whip up when mealtime rolls around.

If you ever dined at seafood restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area and had cioppino in one of them, you likely know that part of the world is where it originates. The story goes that, circa the late 1880s/early 1900s, Italian immigrants who settled there brought their appetite for tomatoey seafood stews with them. And, fortunately for them, the surrounding Pacific Ocean provided tasty items to cook in them.

Many sources suggest cioppino is a term that was likely derived from the Northern Italian dialect word “ciuppin,” which refers to a soup/stew made with fish. As time moved along, cooks all along North America’s Pacific coast learned about cioppino and starting serving it in their restaurants and homes, too.

For a dish that’s been prepared for such a long time, it’s not surprising you’ll find variations on how it’s made. And that’s true with my own recipes for cioppino, as every time I make it never seems to be exactly the same as the last time I did.

But most recipes for cioppino begin by making a base for it, including mine today. The process began with sautéing some chopped shallots and green bell peppers in olive oil until softened. Garlic, herbs, spices and tomato paste were stirred in and cooked a short while, to allow their individual tastes to bloom. White wine was added, and then simmered and reduced to concentrate its flavour. The last step was to add some stock and diced canned tomatoes, bring the base for the cioppino to a simmer, and simmer it 10 minutes, to further develop it’s flavour.

To make the cioppino, you now add your seafood to the base and simmer it until cooked through. That seafood, depending on the recipe, could be such things as Dungeness crab, different types of fish, prawns, scallops, mussels, clams, squid and/or octopus. For today’s recipe, I went with prawns, mussels, lingcod, salmon and scallops, and it proved to be a very tasty combination of things.

To prepare the cioppino partially in advance, you could make the base for it in the morning, cool it to room temperature and then cover and refrigerate it until dinnertime. You could also prep the seafood needed for the cioppino in the morning, such as peeling the prawns and cubing the fish, and keep them refrigerated too.

When it is dinnertime, simply bring the base for the cioppino back to a simmer, add the seafood and when it’s cooked, the cioppino is ready to serve. You can serve the cioppino with slices of crusty Italian bread or baguette, or toasted sourdough bread, for dunking into it. You could also serve it with bruschetta, made by toasting slices of Italian bread or baguette, rubbing them with a cut piece of garlic, and drizzling them with olive oil.

Cioppino for Two

Tomatoey, nicely seasoned, cioppino, a type of seafood stew that in this recipe is richly stocked with prawns, fish, scallops and mussels.

Preparation time: 35 minutes

Cooking time: about 22 minutes

Makes: two servings

1 Tbsp olive oil

1/2 cup finely diced shallot (about 2 medium ones)

1/2 cup medium green bell pepper, finely diced

1 large garlic clove, minced

1 Tbsp tomato paste

1/4 tsp dried oregano

1/4 tsp dried basil

1/4 tsp smoked or regular paprika

1/8 tsp red pepper flakes, or to taste

1/2 cup white wine

1 (14 oz/398 mL) can diced tomatoes (I used San Remo brand)

1 1/4 cups fish or chicken stock or broth

• salt and ground white pepper, to taste

1 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley

8 large raw prawns, peeled, with the tip of each tail left intact (see Note)

1 (about 4 oz./113 g) lingcod or other cod, halibut or rockfish fillet, cut in 1 1/2-inch cubes

1 (about 4 oz./113 g) salmon fillet, cut in 1 1/2-inch cubes

16 bay scallops, or 6 to 8 large sea scallops

10 fresh mussels, any beard-like material removed from the shells (see Eric options)

• parsley sprigs, to taste, for garnish

Place oil in a medium pot and set over medium, medium-high heat (my pot was 8-inches wide). Add the shallots and green pepper and cook until softened, about four minutes. Mix in garlic, tomato paste, oregano, basil, paprika and pepper flakes and cook one minute more. Add the wine to the pot, bring to a simmer and reduce it by half.

Now add the tomatoes and broth (or stock) to the pot and bring this base for the cioppino to a gentle simmer (small bubbles should just break on the surface). Adjust heat, as needed, to maintain that gentle simmer. Simmer the cioppino base, uncovered, 10 minutes.

Taste and season the cioppino base with salt and pepper, and then mix in the chopped parsley. Add the shrimp, fish and scallops to the pot, pushing on them, if needed, with a spoon to submerge them in the cioppino base. Now add the mussels to the pot, pushing on them and half submerging them into the cioppino base. Return to a simmer, and then cook 4 to 5 minutes, or until the prawns, fish and scallops are cooked, and the mussels have opened (a sign they are cooked).

Spoon and divide the cioppino between two shallow serving bowls. Garnish with parsley sprigs and serve.

Note: To peel each prawn, hold the end of the tail in one hand and use your other hand to grab onto its swimmerets, the little legs under the shell. Pull off the shell, leaving the tip of the tail intact. If the prawns were not sold deveined, use a small paring knife to make a lengthwise slit along the back of each prawn. Pull out, or rinse out with cold water, the dark vein, if there is one. Pat the prawns dry with paper towel and they are ready to use.

Eric’s options: An equal amount of fresh manila clams could replace the mussels in this recipe. Cooking time and technique are the same. Or, you could use a mix of mussels and clams in the cioppino.

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Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.