My mother loved the holidays. Her big splurge meal was always on Christmas Eve, when she’d proudly serve red and green in the form of lobster with spinach salad on the side.
From her kitchen in Washington, D.C., where I grew up, these meals grounded us back on Cape Cod, where she had always been her happiest and truest self. Now, when I look at a picture of her taken in a boat somewhere off Chatham triumphantly holding a pair of Christmas lobsters, I see how special those festive meals were to her.
I like to riff on my mother’s theme with a luxurious stew that features local seafood. And keeping the tradition of the big, celebratory meal on Dec. 24 means we can collapse after exchanging presents on Christmas morning.
If you look in my freezer you might think I am a hoarder. I can’t throw away the last splash of broth in a pot of steamed clams or mussels. There is even a container for oyster liquor from the overflow from serving them on the half shell. When local fish markets are giving away lobster bodies, why wouldn’t you have a bag with a body or four in your freezer? But if you can’t collect this cache of seafood essences, our local markets have their own versions.
Making the most of one lobster means the luxury of this stew doesn’t break the bank. I dispatch a big one before steaming it and use the body to boost my seafood broth. If you want to nerd out on cooking lobster, Food Lab author J. Kenji Lopez-Alt goes deep. My takeaway from his experimentation is to steam the lobster until an instant-read thermometer stuck into the tail meat reads 135° F, to avoid it being rubbery and overcooked. You can absolutely have your fishmonger steam the lobster for you, but you will have less control over how long they cook it.
We are lucky to have so many options here for what goes into the pot besides the lobster. Mussels plump into tender nuggets while adding a wonderful broth, and clams work just as well. I like to include a white-fleshed fish, too. If you don’t know the joys of cod cheeks, they are awesome medallions of sweet firm fish, and they hold their shape in a stew, which can’t be said for most filets. Lately they’ve been available at Mac’s in Eastham.
This stew leans Mediterranean with a pinch of saffron, smoked paprika, and a hint of orange. Fennel would be a classic in this, but I’ve left it out because I know some eaters don’t like its licorice taste. Celery is also delicious. If you are looking for a special gift for the food lover in your life, consider a little tin of one of my secret ingredients for this dish: fennel pollen. It has an earthy anise flavor with citrus notes. Sprinkle a little over the stew at the end and you’ll see how it lives up to its nickname, “culinary fairy dust.”
Serve the stew with lots of crusty bread for sopping up the rich broth and with a wintery side salad. Maybe one featuring escarole and oranges. Or Mom’s classic spinach.
CHRISTMAS EVE SEAFOOD STEW
Makes 4 servings
2 cups seafood or fish broth
2 cups water
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 leeks, white and light green parts, cleaned and diced (reserve the dark tops)
2 stalks celery or 1 small fennel bulb, thinly sliced (save the leaves for the stock)
3-5 cloves garlic, minced
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Generous pinch saffron
½ tsp. sweet smoked paprika
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
1 cup dry vermouth or white wine
One 28-ounce can peeled tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
2 dried orange slices, quartered, or a wide strip orange zest
Pinch red pepper flakes, optional
1 Tbsp. minced fresh thyme
Splash brandy or cognac, optional
12 mussels, scrubbed
10 oz. cod checks or sea scallops
¼ cup chopped parsley
- Dispatch the lobster: Separate the claws and tail from the body. Steam the tail and claws until they reach an internal temperature of 135° F (poke an instant read thermometer into the tail), about 5 minutes. Run under cold water to stop the cooking. Remove the meat from the shell. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.
- Make the stock: Put the lobster body and shells in a pot with the 2 cups fish stock, 2 cups water, thyme and parsley sprigs, 1 long dark leek leaf, the celery leaves — basically the trimmings from the vegetables prepped for the stew. Simmer covered for 30 minutes. Strain. You should have about 3½ cups broth. This all can be done the day ahead.
- For the stew base: Heat a large Dutch oven over medium-low heat, add the olive oil, the leeks, celery (or fennel), and garlic and cook stirring until they’re wilted and soft, about 8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Add the saffron and smoked paprika and cook, stirring, over medium heat for about a minute, until the vegetables turn reddish. Stir in the tomato paste and continue cooking about 1 minute. Add the vermouth or wine and use a wooden spoon to scrape up any browned bits in the pot. Simmer until reduced by about half.
Crush the canned tomatoes with your hands as you add them to the pot. Add the broth, bring to a boil, then adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Add the orange, the pepper flakes, if using, and the minced fresh thyme, and cook, covered, for 20 minutes. The base can be prepared up to this point and held at room temperature for 2 hours or made the day ahead, then cooled and refrigerated.
- When ready to serve, bring the base to a gentle simmer over medium-high heat. Add a small splash of cognac or brandy if desired (it feels festive). Add the mussels and cod cheeks, cover and cook, shaking the pot occasionally until the mussels open, about 3 minutes. Cut the lobster into pieces and stir into the stew. Warm through, about a minute, season to taste with salt and pepper, sprinkle with chopped parsley, and serve in wide bowls with plenty of crusty bread.