“I’ll make cioppino,” my brother John announced as the family discussed what to make over the holiday weekend. “Great!” said my father and I, relieved that someone else would do the cooking for a night. “Have you ever made cioppino before?” Dad wisely asked. “Uh, no, but it can’t be that hard, just make a tomato base and throw in some fish, clams and crab.” Okay. Relief short lived.
Actually cioppino, a tasty fish and shellfish stew, is pretty easy to make if you have the ingredients. The trick is using the highest quality seafood. I wouldn’t attempt this stew unless I had access to very fresh fish and shellfish, fortunately abundant in the San Francisco Bay Area. Whole Foods usually carries good seafood, but you should always check when they got the item in. Preferably it came in that morning. Asian markets can be a good source of fresh seafood as well, often available at a much lower price than that of Whole Foods. If your fishmonger has some good fish or shellfish stock for sale as well, all the better.
Note that cioppino is typically served with the shellfish still in their shells, making for somewhat messy eating. It’s a lot of fun for an informal gathering. Have plenty of napkins available and don’t wear white.
- 3 pounds halibut, sea bass, or other firm white fish, cut into inch-long cubes
- 1 large (2 lb or more) cooked Dungeness crab (hard shell)
- 1 pound (or more) of large shrimp
- 2 pounds little neck clams and/or mussels
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 1/2 cups chopped onion (1 large onion)
- 1 cup chopped bell pepper (1 large bell pepper)
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 28-ounce can tomatoes
- Broth from the mollusks
- 2 cups red wine
- 2 cups tomato juice
- 2 cups fish or shellfish stock
- An herb bouquet of bay leaf, parsley, and basil wrapped in a layer of cheesecloth and secured with kitchen string
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1/2 cup minced parsley for garnish
Optional seasonings: a dash of Tabasco sauce and or Worcestershire sauce
1 Steam mollusks (clams and mussels) in a small amount of water (about two cups) until they just open. Set aside. Strain and reserve the cooking broth.
2 Remove the crab legs from the body and use a nut cracker to crack the shells so that the meat can be easily removed once it is served (leave the meat in the shell). Break the body in half, and then cut each half again into either halves or thirds. You can opt to keep the crab meat in the body segments and serve it that way (more work for the eater) or you can pick out the crab meat from the body segments. If you pick out the crab meat, try to keep it in big chunks. Keep the top shell of the crab for making stock.
Note you can use prepared fish or shellfish stock, or you can make your own. If you are not making your own stock, you can discard the crab top shell body. If prepared shellfish stock is not available, I would combine some prepared fish stock (available at many markets, including Trader Joe's) with clam juice.
3 Split the shrimp shells down the back and remove the black vein. (See how to peel and devein shrimp.) I found the easiest way to do this, without removing the shell, is to lay the shrimp on its side and insert a small knife into the large end of the shrimp, with the blade pointing outward from the back (away from the shrimp and your hands). Once you have split the shrimp shells, you can turn the knife toward the shrimp, and cut in a little to find the black vein. Pull out the vein as much as you can. You can probably also use a pair of kitchen scissors to cut the backs of the shrimp.
Alternatively, you can shell the shrimps and devein them. Shell-on imparts more flavor; shell-off is easier to eat.
4 In a deep 8-quart covered pot, sauté onions and bell pepper on medium heat in olive oil until soft. Add the garlic, sauté 1 minute more. Add tomatoes, broth from the mollusks, red wine, tomato juice, fish or shellfish stock, the herb bouquet, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Remove herb bouquet. Taste and correct seasoning.
5 Add the fish and cook, covered, until the fish is just cooked through, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the steamed mollusks, crabmeat, and shrimp. Heat just until shrimp are cooked (just 2-3 minutes, until they are bright pink). Do not overcook.
6 Serve in large bowls, shells included. Sprinkle with minced parsley. Serve with crusty French or Italian bread and a robust red wine. Have plenty of napkins available, a few extra bowls for the shells, and nut crackers and tiny forks for the crab.
Yield: Serves 8.