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Operation Cioppino


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If you're driving to the mountains this winter, one thing you probably don't want to do is load up the cargo area of your SUV with raw fish. We did, and only narrowly averted disaster.

OK, so it was my idea. A group of us were going skiing for the weekend. While planning the trip, I started crowing about how wonderful it would be to come home from a day of flying down the cold mountains to a steaming bowl of cioppino, tomato-based fish and shellfish stew. We'd cook it Friday night at our cabin, and have it ready to heat up when we finished skiing on Saturday. Everyone agreed cioppino would make an awesome after-ski meal, but wouldn't it be easier to just eat out, they asked me.

I didn't answer because by that point I had entered Cioppino Land. I was far, far away and could only concentrate on figuring out where I had stored my extra-large soup pot and which fish market would have the best crab.

The night before we left, I combined the tomatoes, vegetables, herbs, garlic, wine and clam juice for the broth, and on our way out of town we
bought 15 pounds of cracked crab, shrimp, clams, mussels and rock cod. We were on the highway by 4 p.m., listening to music, telling stories and
getting excited about skiing. Rain slowed the traffic, but with our delicious broth melding sweetly in the huge pot on the floor by the back
seat, I thought this road climbing into the mountains was the route to
heaven.

Then the traffic stopped. We heard on the radio that the road had been closed because of ice. We were stuck. There was no turning around because we were on a divided highway with a central guardrail. We were locked in place among hundreds of cars - and the fish was a ticking time bomb. It wasn't in a cooler or even packed in ice, an oversight that suddenly propelled our weekend right into the category of bad sitcom episode, starring me as Lucy. Afraid that our precious cargo would spoil, we turned off the heat and became passengers in a four-wheel- drive fish refrigerator. Even then, we knew we needed to get the fish into boiling broth soon, but we weren't sure how, since we were in the middle of nowhere.

Road crews finally directed us off the highway, and we drove back to the last town we had passed. We spotted a motel that offered rooms with
kitchens. We unloaded, fired up the broth and prepared the seafood for cooking. We also opened a bottle of cachaca, a strong Brazilian rum. It
wasn't long at all before my friend Caroline hit her head on the ceiling while she was go-go dancing on the bed.

Somehow we cooked the cioppino. We ate and toasted and spilled a bit of the delicious seafood-rich stew on the hotel room's aqua couch and
color-coordinated carpet. I assured my friends that we weren't going to be held responsible for every bright-red stain we left behind, and I certainly
hoped that was true. So far, I haven't received a bill or a nasty letter from the motel's management, and here it is, time to make another pot of
cioppino.

For a delicious cioppino recipe, click on "Web Extra: Chef Kevin Weinberg's crab recipes."