First, in Italian, the initial letters “ci” makes a “ch” sound, like the word “ciao.” Next, know that the word has only three syllables, never four; say it cho-PEE-no, not chee-oh-PEE-no. If you want to be exact, throw a bit of the “i” in the first syllable–chyo-PEE-no–but keep it to three syllables.
Good. Now, onward.
For my family, cioppino is the traditional Christmas Eve supper. In the morning it’s coffee and pastries over which we plan our maneuvers like Napoleonic generals. Just before noon, we split up–some to the kitchen, some to the streets. The kitchen crew begins the prep work for the sides and salads, breads and sweet-afters, while the street crews disperse, heading out to fish mongers and green grocers in search of the freshest of the fresh.
The calls come in to the kitchen. There’s fresh rockfish down the wharf. Scotty’s has sea bass. Central has live Dungeness, but they look small. The Dungeness at Petrini’s are beefy and fresh, but cooked. The kitchen receives the intel, reroutes operatives ad hoc, decides on the final mix of fish and shellfish, and sends out orders to purchase. The great thing about cioppino is that you aren’t locked into any specific mixture of seafood or shellfish. The only criteria is that it has to be good; flash-frozen is good, fresh is better, live is best (especially for the bivalves). Some years, winter storms will keep the crab-boats in harbor. Other years, there is no suitable fresh fish to be had. You have to be nimble, but the recipe doesn’t really care, as long as there is ample in the aggregate.
So take this recipe and make it your own, build it to your own taste. Pre-shell all the shellfish if you prefer. Keep the base, and build on that.
Cioppino di Giambastiani
Makes 6 hearty servings
For the base
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 large fennel bulb, cut in half and sliced thin
- 1 large onion, cut in half and sliced thin
- 1/2 red bell pepper, cut in half and sliced thin
- 2 tsp salt
- 5 large cloves garlic, minced/crushed
- 1/2 to 1 tsp powdered chili pepper (see Notes)
- 2 oz tomato paste
- 2 – 15 oz cans diced tomatoes in juice (no spices, low salt)
- 1 1/2 cups dry red wine (see Notes)
- 5 cups fish stock, from clam juice or stock from shells (see Notes)
- 4 tbsp Italian parsley, minced
For the fish
- 1 lb manila clams, scrubbed clean
- 1 lb mussels, debearded, scrubbed clean
- 1 lb uncooked 21/30 shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 1.5 lb firm-fleshed fish fillets (cod, halibut, sea bass, rockfish, barramundi, snapper–see Notes), pin-bones removed, cut into 2-inch chunks
- 1-2 Dungeness crab (depending on size), cooked, cleaned, and cracked; remove the meat from the bodies and the smaller legs, but leave the larger legs in the shells
- In a pot large enough to hold the entire stew, heat the oil over a medium heat.
- Add fennel, onion, and salt, and saute until onion is translucent (about 10 minutes).
- Add the garlic and powdered chili pepper (go easy on the powdered chili to start and add more later if you want). Saute for a couple more minutes.
- Add the tomato paste and stir to distribute evenly.
- Add the diced tomatoes and their juice, the wine, and the fish stock. Cover and bring to a simmer.
- Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 30 minutes.
- Optionally, add 1/2 lb of the fish to the pot. Simmer another 30 minutes, for a total of one hour on simmer (see Notes).
- You can pause at this point, if needed. If you do, bring the base back to a simmer about 20 minutes prior to serving and continue.
- In a large skillet over medium-high heat, bring a cup of salted water to a boil. Add the clams and mussels, cover, and steam for 5-7 minutes. Discard any that don’t open up, then transfer the rest to the pot (see Notes).
- Add the shrimp and fish to the pot. Cook for about 5 minutes until the shrimp are nearly cooked through.
- Add the crab just to get it warm (another 5 minutes)
- Add the minced parsley and give it a stir.
- Adjust salt and powdered chili to taste.
- Ladle into bowls and serve with chunks of artisanal bread to sop up the sauce.
- Use mild to medium chilies–e.g., new mexico, poblano, or guajillo–according to your diners’ heat tolerance
- I prefer to use Chianti, Montepulciano, or Sangiovese, but for a lighter base, use a dry white wine like Pinot Grigio or Abruzzo
- For the fish stock, I use a combination of clam juice and stock made from the shells. Take the shells from the shrimp and crab and put them in about 3 cups of water. Bring to a boil and cook for about 15 minutes, then strain through a sieve to separate shells from broth. I use about 2 cups of this broth with 3 cups of clam juice to make my 5 cups of fish stock.
- Do not use salmon, tilapia, swai, or catfish, as they can impart an unpleasant undertaste to the stew. Also, sole and pollock are too fragile and won’t hold up, so don’t use them. The fish I like best are halibut, sea bass, cod, lingcod, rockfish, monkfish, haddock, and barramundi.
- If you want, you can add 1/2 lb of the fish during the last 30 minutes of the one-hour simmer, so that it breaks up and works to thicken the stew.
- I prefer to steam my clams and mussels in a separate pan because sometimes they can discharge sand and mud, which can ruin the whole pot. If they don’t, you can add the cooking liquid to the pot, if desired.