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Cioppino: A Savory Seafood Stew

This San Francisco classic is a succulent mix of shellfish and white fish in a brightly flavored broth

Fine Cooking Issue 71
Photo: Scott Phillips
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Like many cooks who call northern California home, I’ve had a long love affair with cioppino. Californian by way of Italy, cioppino was brought to San Francisco by fisherman from Genoa. Romantic legend has it that fisherman made this stew on board their boats as they returned to Fisherman’s Wharf with their catches, through the Golden Gate into San Francisco Bay. (But if you’ve ever been on the Bay, you know it can be rough: The idea of a big pot of hot, simmering stew on a small boat seems dangerous to me.) Cioppino isn’t derived from one specific recipe, but there are some definite guidelines for a delicious and authentic result.

Cioppino is all about a tasty broth—and a mix of seafood. The broth—stock, tomatoes, and wine—can be made a day or two ahead. I like to do this in quantity and store it in the freezer, which means that I can finish this recipe in about half an hour. In the broth, the combination of tomatoes and wine makes for bright, zippy flavors that are the perfect partner to the fish.

For a flavorful stock, use this quick trick. Most cioppino recipes call for fish stock, which can be hard to find or keep on hand. But I’ve included a simple recipe for turning ordinary canned chicken stock into a flavorful shellfish stock using shrimp shells. You’ll often encounter the suggestion of bottled clam juice as a substitute for fish stock. I’m not a big fan of the stuff since I find it’s often very salty and sometimes gritty.

Use a balance of fresh fish and shellfish. You’ll see suggestions in the box below. Dunngeeness crab—a West Coast crustacean that you occasionally find in other parts of the country—is traditional, but it isn’t a requirement. Your best bet is using the freshest seafood you can find.

When you finish the stew, add the fish and shellfish in stages according to how long each one needs to cook. The recipe direction “until just barely cooked through” is important here because the fish will continue to cook as it sits in the warm broth when you portion it out.

The infused garlic oil, garlic chips, and sourdough crouton are my own twists on the traditional elements of this stew, which is laced with garlic and usually gets served with a hunk of sourdough bread. To round out the meal, you don’t need much more than a crisp green salad, a little more crusty bread, a simple dessert (like fresh fruit with a custard sauce like zabaglione), and some red wine.

Dungeness crab is traditional but not essential

The cold waters off the San Francisco Bay all the way north to Alaska are rich fishing grounds for Dungeness crab, which is why this sweet beauty is often included in cioppino. But if you can’t find Dungeness—or any crab, for that matter—don’t worry: Your stew will still taste great without it.

A typical shopping list for ciopppino is about 2 to 3 lb. fresh boned firm fish fillets (halibut, sea bass, or monkfish), about 3 lb. clams, mussels, or crab (or a mix) and 1 lb. shrimp. If you can find Dungeness crab, by all means buy it (it should weigh about 2 lb.) and have the fishmonger cut it up into parts for you. For this cioppino recipe, add the crab pieces at the same time as the mussels. If you have access to other fresh crab in the shell, use 2 lb. Don’t use canned or frozen crab. The flavor is inferior, and you’ll be missing the shells, which also add important flavor to the finished cioppino. —the editors

Dungeness crab.


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