What’s in a name? In our anxiety-prone food culture we tend to get uptight about the smallest lexical tics and demarkations. For instance, is it a Bouillabaisse or a Cioppino? How about Fish Soup—that seems to work pretty well. Italians mostly call dishes like this Zuppa di Pesce—Fish Soup. Occasionally Ciuppin. And sometimes Brodetto… Okay, you get the idea.
A Brodetto is a regional Italian variation found along the Adriatic that calls for special inclusion of the scorpionfish, or scorfano. Bouillabaisse is the Provencal word for essentially the same thing. All involve a mixture of both finned fish and shellfish, cooked in a tomato and wine-based stew, with peasant bread for sopping up the rich broth.
Cioppino, legend has it, is a New World invention—the word, that is. Italian immigrants shipping out of San Francisco to fish the Pacific ate Cioppino at sea—the catch of the day plus whatever other ingredients they had on board. The word derives from ciuppin, which translates as “chop”—in other words, chop it all together and make soup.
That’s what I love about Cioppinos and their ilk. When you can get past the regional claims, prejudices, and pronouncements, a Cioppino is merely an efficient and delectable way to make use of the odds and ends hanging around in the fridge. But to do it right you still need a variety of fish. Make it with either red wine or white; with spicy peppers or saffron; with fennel or celery. Just make it. You won’t be disappointed.
I made mine with Dungeness crab I dove for this summer, spot shrimp caught last spring, and a medley of mollusks gathered this past weekend: Manila clams, native littlenecks, and mussels. At the fish market I supplemented the shrimp and bought small bay scallops and Alaskan yellow-eye rockfish (sold as “red snapper,” a fish that doesn’t exist on the West Coast). There was a time when I might have speared my own rockfish but those along the inner shore of Puget Sound are too small and beleaguered to be harvested now.
The bivalves came from my usual beach, where we got limits of oysters, clams, and mussels. Too bad it was raining all day because the low-low tide exposed more of the beach than usual, which made for first-rate exploring. We found eels and other small fish hiding in the oyster beds, and one stretch was carpeted with sand dollars.
Here are my ingredients this time around. Remember that you can use just about anything that swims in the sea, or that filters salt water, as the case may be. Squid add lots of flavor. Just about any firm white-fleshed fish is a good choice; avoid more fragile-fleshed species such as flounder, sole, and thin cuts of cod as well as the dark-fleshed fish (e.g. salmon, mackerel, tuna) that will overpower the stew. I used 2 cups of homemade shrimp stock. You can use a cup of clam juice plus a cup of chicken broth, or conventional fish stock. Fish heads are ideal if you can get them; my market was sold out.
2 dozen littleneck clams
2 dozen (or more) mussels
1 lb shrimp, shelled
1 lb bay scallops
1/2 cooked Dungeness crab, broken into leg segments
1 lb rockfish fillets, cut into 3-inch pieces
1-2 cups white wine (or red)
1 28 oz can whole plum tomatoes with liquid
2 cups fish stock (or clam juice, shrimp stock, etc.)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tbsp tomato paste
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 medium onions (or 1 large), chopped
2 ribs celery, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 bay leaf
1-2 tsp red pepper flakes
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
fresh basil for garnish
In a heavy pot or Dutch oven saute the onions in olive oil over medium heat for a minute or two, then add the garlic, chopped vegetables, red pepper flakes, and bay leaf. Cook several minutes until veggies are soft, then stir in tomato paste. Cook another minute and pour in wine and let bubble for a couple minutes. Add tomatoes and stock, roughly chopping the whole tomatoes in the pot. Simmer for a least 30 minutes; longer is better. Add the crab legs and simmer another 15 minutes. When you’re ready to serve the stew, add the fin fish first and simmer for a few minutes, then add the shellfish. When the clams and mussels have all opened, stir in the parsley. It’s ready to eat. Serve piping hot with good crusty bread and some chopped basil for garnish.
As written above, this Cioppino will easily serve six, but for larger groups you can add another can of tomatoes, more wine and stock, extra seasoning, and leave the seafood amounts as is. Or, if serving a smaller group you might consider cutting the shrimp and scallops by half. All this seafood can be expensive when paying market prices, so tinker according to your budget and taste. It’s a very forgiving dish.