San Francisco-Style Cioppino
Don’t know what cioppino is? Neither did I, even though apparently this fish stew originated from where I grew up! But then again, whenever I dined out in San Francisco, my family only took me to Chinatown so I think I can be excused from this lack of knowledge… oh well now is the time to redeem myself and take pride in my Bay Area cuisine!
Cioppino is a fish stew that was developed in the lates 1880s by Portuguese and Italian fishermen who had settled in the North Beach section of San Francisco. The dish was derived from various regional fish soups and stews of Italian cuisine and is comparable to cacciucco from Italy, bouillabaisse of France, or the Catalan suquet de peix of Spain. Cioppino was originally made on the boats while the fisherman were at sea, and later became a staple in the Italian restaurants in San Francisco. Traditionally, the stew is made from the catch of the day, which typically includes a combination of fish, crab, shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams and squid. The seafood is mixed with a soup base made of fresh tomatoes and wine and served with toasted bread. The name cioppino comes from ciuppin, which means “to chop” in the Lingurian dialect of the port city of Genoa. This refers to the method in which this flavorful stew was made by chopping up the various leftovers of the day’s catch.
Ever since my friend Andrei had mentioned learning how to make a seafood cioppino at culinary school, it sounded so delicious that I wanted to try to make it myself even though I had never actually tasted cioppino before. I really didn’t know what it was either at the time… but all I had heard was seafood stew and I was sold.
The idea persistently bounced around my head and so one day when I was wandering through the Chinatown fish market, I decided it was cioppino go time. I had to call up Andrei to find out what seafood I needed for the dish as I really had no idea what I was doing, I just knew I wanted to do it. I picked up some fresh mussels, shrimp, cod fillets, scallops… and then went for the slightly easier to handle frozen king crab legs and a can of minced clams. Of course the stew would be fantastic with all fresh seafood, but it was my first time cooking live shellfish and I figured I could only handle one species on this first attempt. Unlike the time I cooked Chinese-style Steamed Fish when I came away from Chinatown with an *allegedly* dead fish that started wriggling in my grocery bag, mussels ARE supposed to be alive before being cooked as after they die, enzymes will quickly break down the meat and make it unpalatable. The simple way to check is that live mussels, when in the air, will shut tightly when disturbed (basically poke them and if they close, they are good; if unresponsive, they should be discarded). I referred to this article to learn how to clean and prep your mussels for cooking.
Andrei told me to use Tadich Grill’s famous cioppino recipe. Considering Tadich Grill is THE oldest restaurant in California (opened in 1849) that continues to operate today, it is pretty clear their cioppino is legit. Generally, the seafood in this stew is all cooked with shell intact, which means eating this dish will be very messy. I did a partial “lazy man’s cioppino” by only leaving the tails on the shrimp and cracked the crab legs a bit to assist with easier eating. However, it still took a good amount of effort to deshell everything for consumption. But I think it made this dinner a pretty fun adventure for the whole party. Next time, I think I may get some bibs for everyone… they were so awesome and stylin’ at the Lobster Pot!
San Francisco-Style Cioppino (adapted from Tadich Grill)
Yields: 8 servings
- 1/2 C olive oil, divided
- 1 large onion, chopped (or 1 small onion + 1 small leek, white part only)
- 1 tsp red chili pepper flakes
- 2 carrot, finely chopped
- 2 ribs celery, chopped
- 1 green bell pepper, chopped
- 2 T fresh fennel, chopped
- 2 x 28oz can of crushed tomatoes
- 2 T tomato paste
- 4 C water
- 2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp ground pepper
- 2 tsp fresh basil, minced
- 1 tsp fresh oregano, minced
- 1/2 tsp fresh thyme, minced
- 6 bay leaves
- Dash of cayenne pepper
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 lb flaky white fish, cut into 1/2×2″ strips
- 16 large shrimp, peeled, tail on, and deveined
- 16 large scallops
- 16 fresh mussels in shell, cleaned and debearded
- 1 can minced clams with juice
- 1 lb frozen king crab legs, thawed
- 1 1/2 C dry white wine
- Bunch of Italian parsley, chopped
Heat 1/4 C olive oil in Dutch oven or large heavy pan over medium heat. Add onions and red pepper flakes and sauté 1 minute without browning. Add carrot, green pepper, celery, fennel and sauté 5 minutes.
Stir in crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, water, clam juice, salt, pepper, basil, oregano, thyme, bay leaves and cayenne pepper. Partially cover and simmer over low heat 2 hours, stirring occasionally. (Sauce can be covered and kept warm over low heat for several hours longer.) Remove bay leaves.
While the vegetable sauce base is simmering, you can prep the seafood which you will add once the sauce is done cooking. Make sure to give it the full 2 hours as the resulting flavor infusion of herbs and vegetables is worth it!
CRAB: If you bought frozen crab legs like I did, I would place the crab legs in boiling water to help them thaw. When ready, hack crab leg through shell into 2- to 3-inch pieces with a large heavy knife. Gently stir into the sauce.
SHRIMP, SCALLOPS, FISH:
Heat remaining 1/4 C oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add garlic and cook 5 seconds. Immediately add the fish, shrimp and scallops. Sauté until just cooked through, 2-4 minutes. Gently stir into the sauce.
MUSSELS: Refer to this article to learn how to clean your mussels. Never use mussels that are chipped, broken, or damaged in any way. Also, discard any mussels that are open and do not close when touched.
Using the same skillet, pour 1 1/2 C of dry white wine and cook 30 seconds over medium heat, stirring up any loose bits. Add mussels to skillet. Cover and cook until mussels open, 2-6 minutes. Transfer mussels as they open to sauce. Discard any that do not open.
Finally, gently stir the minced clams into the sauce. Cover and cook cioppino until all seafood is hot, 2-3 minutes longer.
Ladle cioppino into large casserole or soup tureen or directly into shallow soup plates. Garnish with chopped Italian Parsley.