Saturday, December 18, 2010


Cioppino is an old San Francisco tradition having started when Italian immigrant fisherman used to cook leftover seafood scraps in a tomato-based stew. I've tried several celebrated versions in the local SF restaurants and came up with this recipe, an amalgamation of the best ones I've had.

The first step is to make the stew - a vegetable base in which tomatoes and seafood broth are cooked for 2-3 hours. The seafood is not added until just prior to serving as that which is not already prepared takes very little time to cook. It's best to serve with a rustic bread broiled/toasted pretty dark.

I like to make cioppino in the winter when the local Dungeness crab haul is at its peak as it makes for the best version. I buy a live local crab, boil it, clean out the meat putting aside the remaining empty shells. I use the shells, as well as shrimp shells, fish bones or whatever is available to make a flavorable broth.

Boiling the live crab

Cooked crab

Preparing the crab broth

Preparing the vegetable base
1 live Dungeness crab - 2 pounds
½ pound white fleshed fish cut into 1 inch pieces
½ pound mussels
½ pound medium-sized shrimp peeled and deveined
½ pound scallops
½ pound squid cleaned - tentacles separated and body cut into ½ inch rings

Crab Boil:
Crab whole, live and, hopefully, lively
2 lemons
Herbs - thyme
2 bay leaves

Fill a large pot or stockpot with 6 quarts water, herbs (I use fresh thyme as I have it growing here), and 2 lemons quartered and squeezed into the water. Bring to a boil then add the live crab. (I've also experimented with putting the crab in when it reaches past the lukewarm stage, about 120°F, as I've heard the warm water knocks the crab out thereby preventing the shock to the crab of adding it to a boiling cauldron which supposedly causes for much adrenalin getting released in the crab.)

Cook the crab for 10 minutes then remove, rinsing and soaking in cold water to cool it off. Once cool, break the crab up and pick the meat out into a bowl making sure to throw out the lungs and the crab 'butter'. The butter can be good for some things but not so much in this recipe. 

Seafood broth:
Put the remaining shells, and any other seafood shells, like shrimp shells or fish bones, into a clean stockpot of water and bring to a boil, reduced to simmering for about 30 minutes. I personally don't add seasoning to this broth as I'm trying to just get the flavor of the seafood, especially the fresh crab. After the 30 minutes I strain out the shells and put the water back into the pot. Then I increase the heat to high and reduce the broth to about a third to concentrate the flavor.

Vegetable Base:
1 onion diced
2 carrots diced
1 green bell pepper diced
1 leek - white part diced
2 ribs celery diced
1 fennel diced

In a Dutch oven heat the olive oil over medium heat then add the onion, carrot, bell pepper, leek, celery, and fennel, cooking until all the vegetables are quite translucent. Make a space in the middle and add the tomato paste to caramelize for a few minutes. 

2 28oz cans Muir Glen whole tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1-2 cups fish broth
fresh herbs minced - basil, thyme, oregano
2 bay leaves

Drop the contents of the canned tomatoes into the vegetables stirring them in to break up into a sauce. Add the herbs and bay leaves, some salt and pepperoncini. Add about a cup of the hot seafood broth stirring it in as well. Cook for at least a couple of hours at a simmer, adding more broth every 15 minutes or as needed if and when the stew starts to dry out. I keep the pot at least partially uncovered for the most part as I don't mind it reducing leaving room for more of the broth.

½-1 cup dry white wine
3 cloves garlic sliced thinly or pounded to a paste
2 tablespoons olive oil

When the stew is about 20 minutes short of being done, I saute the mussels. In a skillet add the olive oil and garlic and cook for a couple of minutes over medium heat. Add the wine and then the mussels, cooking the mussels for a few minutes until they've all opened up. Remove the mussels and set aside.

Final Preparation:
Once the mussels and crab are cooked, it's just a matter of the sequence of adding the fish to the stew just prior to serving. You're basically poaching the seafood that is still not cooked and heating up the mussels and crab by counting time backwards from the service.
10 minutes before serving, add the fish.
5 minutes before, add the shrimp and scallops.
2 minutes before, add the crabmeat, mussels and squid.

Whole loaf crusty Italian bread cut sliced to 1 inch, spread with olive oil, toasted or broiled

Serve in bowls with toast.

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