Up to a day ahead:
Make the garlic oil and garlic chips: Cut the garlic cloves into 1/8-inch slices, put them in a small saucepan with the oil, and season with salt and pepper. Cook over low to medium-low heat until the garlic turns light golden brown, 15 to 20 min., adjusting the heat as needed to keep the garlic bubbling gently as it cooks. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature. Strain, reserving both the oil and the garlic chips separately. Reserve the garlic chips for garnish (don’t leave them at room temperature for more than a day or they’ll get soggy). Refrigerate the oil in a clean, sealed container. (You’ll use the oil for the sourdough croutons; use any leftover oil for vinaigrettes, roasted vege- tables, pasta, or roast chicken.)
Make an easy shellfish stock: Peel the shrimp, reserving the shells. (Refrigerate the shelled shrimp to use later in the stew.) Simmer the shells in the chicken broth for 5 min., covered. Strain and refrigerate until ready to use.
Make the broth: Heat the olive oil in an 8-quart or larger pot over medium heat. Add the onions, carrot, celery of fennel, and chopped garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are lightly browned, 15 to 20 min. Add the tomatoes with their juices, the wine, shellfish stock, bay leaves, basil, oregano, fennel seeds, chile flakes, 1 tsp. salt, and several grinds of pepper. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer and cook for about 20 min. Strain through a medium sieve, pressing on the solids in the sieve. Discard the contents of the sieve. Rinse the pot and return the broth to the pot. Boil the broth until reduced to 8 cups. (If you over-reduce the broth, just add water to compensate.) Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed, remembering that the fish will add some saltiness to the stew. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Half an hour before serving:
Make the toast and cook the shellfish: Position a rack directly under the broiler and heat the broiler. Brush the bread on both sides with the reserved garlic oil. Put the bread on a baking sheet (or directly on the rack) and toast on both sides. While you toast the bread, return the broth to a simmer over medium-high to high heat.
When each batch of seafood is added, it will cause the temperature of the broth to plunge, so you might need to raise and lower the heat to maintain a simmer. If using clams, start by adding them to the broth and simmer until they open, 3 to 5 min. Add the mussels and crab, if using, and simmer until the mussels have opened, 2 to 3 min. Add the fish and shrimp. Stir carefully with a slotted spoon to get all the fish and shrimp into the broth, but try not to break the pieces up. Cover and cook until the fish is just barely cooked through, another 3 to 5 min., keeping in mind that the fish will continue to cook a little in the time it takes to dish out the servings.
Assemble the stew: Set a piece of toasted sourdough in the bottom of each warm bowl and evenly portion the seafood into the bowls (be sure to discard any unopened clams or mussels). Ladle the broth on top.
Garnish and serve: Sprinkle the chopped parsley and garlic chips over all and serve immediately.
Because you’ll be using red wine to make the stew base, this is a great chance to actually serve red wine with fish. John Ash likes to serve the same wine—or at least a wine from the same grape—that he used to make the recipe. Just be sure the wine is young, fruity, and not overly tannic. (Fortunately, this usually translates to “not too expensive.”) If you go with Pinot Noir, try Gallo of Sonoma ($13) or Fetzer Five Rivers Ranch ($13), both from California. If you opt for Zinfandel, the 2002 Bonny Doon Cardinal Zin “Beastly Old Vines” from California ($16) would be my choice. Or, for a nod to cioppino’s Italian roots, try Barbera, a delicious Italian wine with zippy acidity and juicy fruit. I like the 2001 Michele Chiarlo Barbera d’Asti ($16) or the 2002 Pasquero Paitin Barbera d’Alba “Serra Boella” ($18).
nutrition information (per serving):
based on eight servings;
Photo: Scott Phillips