If you’ve ever been to San Fransisco, you’ve probably had this delicious seafood stew, created in the 1800s by Italian-American fishermen. Cioppino, is based on traditional regional Italian soups like Ciuppin and Cacciucco, but like most great folk cuisine, it has been adapted to use ingredients which are local, fresh, and plentiful. I first tasted Cioppino in the late 90s while staying in the Bay area, attending a sailing course. I can’t remember the name of the waterfront restaurant where I had my first bowl—but it was love at first bite.
This isn’t a fussy dish by any means, and you have to be willing to get a little messy to truly enjoy it. The usual ingredients include shrimp, clams, mussels, bay scallops, whatever fish you caught that day, and Dungeness crab, which is typically halved or quartered. The clams and crab are often served with their shells still intact, so having a claw cracker and small fork are definitely recommended. I’d also add BIG napkins, a second bowl/plate for the shells, and maybe some damp paper towels to the list of recommended items. It’s hard to look elegant while enjoying this dish, but it’s absolutely worth every drip, splatter, and spot on your tie.
The base for cooking the seafood is a rich tomato broth, enhanced with wine and often a bit of clam juice, lobster juice or seafood stock. To soak up all of that yumminess, a chunk of Sourdough bread is traditional. If you’re like me, and eschew the grains, you can just tip the bowl of remaining broth directly into your mouth! Totally worth looking uncouth to get the last bits of this stew.
I have made this dish so many times over the years, often using whatever fish and shellfish were local to me at the time. While Dungeness crab is what is plentiful on the West coast, I’m on the Atlantic side of the country so I’ll use Blue crab when it’s available. My fish choice is often Mahi or Red Snapper as they are both abundant in this area. We’re also lucky to have a good supply of local shrimp, and clams. But even if you live nowhere near the sea, you can get excellent quality mixes of seafood in the frozen sections of most grocery stores. Look for packages designed for adding to pasta or rice dishes, as they often contain an assortment of shellfish. And don’t feel like you have to include every one of the traditional ingredients. If you hate mussels or detest clams, or can’t find bay scallops, that isn’t a problem. This stew is very adaptable to your personal tastes and ingredient availability. Substitute something you like, or double up something else. It’s your Cioppino, make it your way. The recipe I’m giving you is how I made this last night; a windy, rainy, Friday night when I had about 30 minutes to pull something together for dinner. How could I do it that quickly? A big help was that I had leftover marinara sauce in the fridge. I was able to use that, half a bottle of white wine, and a small bottle of lobster juice to make my stew broth. That’s right—well seasoned marinara sauce! While most recipes start with chopped or pureed tomatoes and herbs, I had already accomplished that stage of prep by having that sauce ready to go in the fridge. I was able to dice up half an onion, and a few cloves of garlic and throw them in the pot to sweat in some EVOO while I cut my Mahi up into bite sized pieces. Once my onions and garlic were fragrant I tossed the fish into the pot and let it cook for a few minutes. While the fish cooked I started peeling my shrimp, and soaked the clams in fresh water and a little cornmeal so they would spit out any grit. Once the fish was mostly opaque, I deglazed the pan with lobster juice and a little wine, and poured in about a quart of that marinara sauce. I rinsed the jar out with a bit more wine and poured that into the pot as well. Once all of that was simmering, I put 3 halves of snow crab into the pot and covered it. I let all of that simmer and meld while the clams were hanging out, and I finished the shrimp. After letting the stew simmer for 20 minutes or so, I tossed the shrimp in and recovered the pot. Into a separate pan I poured a bit of that white wine, and started heating it up to steam my clams. I decided to steam them separately just to be sure there wasn’t a chance of the stew turning out gritty. If you don’t want to use live clams, you can always choose to use frozen or canned clam meat. So once my clams had opened I placed 3 in each bowl and then divided the Cioppino among the bowls, giving each person part of the snow crabs as well. Two of my family aren’t big eaters so I was able to split up the crab clusters and use one for them both. You’ll notice that I didn’t include mussels, scallops or calamari in the pot. We couldn’t find any bay scallops,and my sweetie isn’t so sure about Mussels. So I just left them out. As for the Calamari, I honestly just forgot! But you know what? The Cioppino was still delicious! I served this with that aforementioned Sourdough for the family, and also made a quick Harissa Mayo (using my mayonnaise recipe) — sort of a version of the traditional French Rouille served with Bouillabaisse. I know, I know, so cross-cultural! But Cioppino started as a cross-cultural dish, blending Italian culinary tradition with California ingredients. My adding a French touch with North African spices to my East Coast version of this San Fransisco dish seems legit. Here’s the actual recipe as I made it. Try it. You’ll like it!
Time: ~ 30 minutes
1 Quart Marinara Sauce (home made is best, Newman’s Organic is a good sub for Homemade)
4 cloves of garlic chopped
1/2 a medium onion, finely chopped
3-4 TBSP EVOO
8 oz lobster juice, clam juice or seafood stock
750 ml dry white wine (we used a bottle of Pinot Grigio we knew we’d never drink)
1/2 lb of a firm, meaty fish. (Mahi Mahi, Swordfish, or whatever you like and have available) Cut into bite sized pieces
1/2 lb Shrimp. Shelled and deveined
1 dozen clams, or a package of frozen/canned clam meat
3 Snow Crab clusters (you can use more or less as you like, and sub different types of crab if desired)
Heat the EVOO in a large stock pot. Once shimmering, add in the garlic and onion and allow to cook for a few moments until fragrant. Do not let the garlic burn! Once fragrant, add in the chopped fish and cook on all sides until opaque. It’s fine to get a bit of color on the fish, but watch that garlic! Deglaze the pan with the lobster/clam juice/stock and then add the marinara sauce. Stir to combine everything . Use the wine to rinse any remaining sauce into the pot. Reserve 1/2cup of wine for the clams. Add remaining wine to the stew as desired to thin the consistency, and adjust the flavor. Bring the stew to a simmer and add in the crab. Cover and put over very low heat. While the stew simmers, prepare a large skillet with the reserved wine and 1/2 cup water. Place your clams in the skillet, cover and heat over medium high until the shells open. Turn off the heat and discard any clams which have not opened. Add your shrimp into the stew and cover again. The shrimp will cook very quickly. As soon as they curl and turn pink, they’re done.
To serve, divide clams among the bowls, and then ladle in the Cioppino. Top each bowl with crab and dig in! As I said, you might want to use some claw crackers, and small forks to get all the meat out of the crabs and clams.
** if you don’t have marinara sauce, you can easily use pureed/finely chopped tomatoes and fresh or dried herbs instead. I’d use a 28 oz box of tomatoes, and then double the onion and garlic amounts from above. I’d add in dried fennel, oregano, basil, marjoram, and thyme along with black pepper, and I’d allow the base to simmer a bit longer to really develop the flavor before adding in the shellfish
*** If you are using a frozen seafood mix, add it into the simmering stew but don’t lower the heat immediately. The mix will need to cook a bit longer than fresh seafood. Once the stew is simmering vigorously, cover and lower the heat, and allow to simmer 15-20 minutes.
This dish reheats beautifully, so you can have portions ready for lunch or dinner later in the week.
I hope you’ll give this a try and let me know how you liked it! I’m always grateful for feedback on how you’re incorporating my recipes into your lives.