A few weeks ago, when Hubby and I were in Arizona visiting Peggy and Sunil, we went to dinner at T. Cooks, where a cioppino was featured as one of the evening's specials. I was sorely tempted, but had been warned that seafood wasn't the greatest in Scottsdale. When I passed in favor of another dish, Peggy noted with surprise, "I remember when you ate cioppino at every restaurant we went to for almost a year."
And that year would have been 1998; I had cioppino for the first time at The Food Studio and fell in love with the saffron infused seafood stew. Cioppino was fashionable that year - it seemed to be on every menu at every restaurant we visited. I've eaten countless versions of this stew, a San Francisco answer to the French bouillabaisse, but I think that first dish is still the best. Like bouillabaisse, cioppino is a stew that evolved from the ethnic tastes of its inventors, and the largesse of the ocean.
Although its history has never been verified, most agree that cioppino was created in San Francisco though they can't pinpoint when; it wasn't until after World War II that the stew became known outside of San Francisco. The first published recipe appeared in 1918. The story goes that cioppino was invented by the Italian and Portuguese fishermen who concocted the stew based on the day's catch. Cioppino was originally prepared on the boats while the fishermen were at sea, with fresh catch straight from the water. Its name was supposedly derived from ciuppin, a possible corruption of the Genovese word for suppin, or "little soup." Another theory is that the name came from the foreigner slang to "chip-in-o," or, to chip in, as the fisherman partaking in the stew were expected to contribute fish to the meal.
As a result of the haphazard ingredients, based on what the ocean yielded, cioppino is a happily versatile dish. It's usually a stew based comprised of tomatoes, onion and garlic, but the herbs run the gamut from thyme to sage, and within the soup itself clams can be substituted with mussels, different white fish can be used, and red wine occasionally replaces white wine (I prefer the latter). It's really a matter of preference and availability.
I made a mistake today substituting tomato sauce for tomato paste; it made the resulting stew entirely too tomato-y and red. I'm also much more partial to the pale, reddish-gold stew I first had at Food Studio, which owed its hue and fragrance to a liberal dousing of saffron. Still, it's hard to go wrong with a fresh seafood stew.
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, diced (about 1 1/2 cups)
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 T tomato paste
1 cup dry white wine
2 1/2 pounds vine-ripened tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
2 T oregano
1 T thyme
1 T parsley
1 bay leaf
1 t crushed red pepper
8 oz (about 1 cup) clam juice
2 cups chicken broth*
2 t saffron threads
salt & pepper to taste
* If you have fish fumet available, substitute 3 cups of the fish stock for the clam juice and chicken broth.
1 lb little neck clams
1 lb mussels, scrubbed and de-bearded
1 1/2 lbs lobster, steamed; chop the tail meat into 1 inch pieces; leave claw meat intact
1 Dungeness crab, cooked and chopped into large pieces 1/2 lb large shrimp, shells removed, deveined 1/2 lb sea scallops
2 lb variety of firm white fish (like cod, halibut, grouper), cut into 1 inch pieces
Heat olive oil in a Dutch oven or a heavy pot. Sauté the onions until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, salt and pepper and sauté for 1 minute. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for 1 minute. Deglaze the pot with the wine and simmer for about 8 minutes, until the mixture is reduced by half. Add tomatoes, oregano, thyme, parsley, bay leaf and crushed red pepper. Stir in the clam juice and chicken broth, and bring to a boil. Add half the saffron, reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered, for about 25-30 minutes.
Increase the heat to medium high (until the soup starts slow boil) and add the clams and mussels, cooking uncovered until the shellfish open (discard any clams or mussels that do not open), about 7 minutes. Add the crab and cook for 2 minutes, followed by the shrimp, scallops and lobster. Cook until the seafood is firm, about an additional 5 minutes (but for heaven's sake, taste and test the fish to make sure it's done!). Finish with the remaining saffron.
Ladle into heated soup bowls and sprinkle parsley on top. Serve with crusty French bread that has been rubbed with garlic and toasted.
* I dunno about you, but I ifinitely preferred the mussels and clams out of their shells so I'll get more and shuck the meat into the stew after they've opened. If you like the decorative aspects of the shells, you can probably get away with half a pound of the clams or mussels.