Light yet robust cioppino stew demands the freshest seafood possible

Unlike many stews that taste better with time, this stew is meant to be eaten straight away to capture the freshness of the fish.

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Cioppino is a San Francisco seafood stew that originated in the 1800s when the Italian and Portuguese fishermen chopped up leftovers from their daily catches to make a robust tomato-based soup.

Cioppino is a San Francisco seafood stew that originated in the 1800s when the Italian and Portuguese fishermen chopped up leftovers from their daily catches to make a robust tomato-based soup.

Lynda Balslev, Taste/Food

It’s time to lighten things up — and officially enter bowl-food season.

Rich and heavy holiday dinners — featuring cocktails and multiple courses, ribs and roasts, sauces and reductions — will take a New Year’s timeout, replaced by steaming bowls brimming with warm and nourishing soups and stews. And while meat is certainly welcome to join the bowl-fun, the lightness of seafood is a refreshing alternative. It’s time for a cioppino.

Cioppino (chuh-PEE-noh) is a San Francisco seafood stew that originated in the 1800s when the Italian and Portuguese fishermen chopped up leftovers from their daily catches to make a robust tomato-based soup. Its name is derived from the Italian term ciuppin, which means to chop. Wine is a key ingredient in the cioppino stock, and recipes gamely call for white or red, depending on the source. I prefer to use red wine, which adds more fruit and less acidity to the broth.

As for the fish and shellfish, there is no set rule, except to choose as fresh as possible. Select a variety of shellfish and seafood, such as clams, mussels, shrimp and scallops, and thicken the soup with chunks of firm-fleshed white fish, such as halibut. While many cioppinos include crab, which is local to and abundant in the San Francisco Bay area during the winter season, it can easily be omitted. If you have access to crab, purchase the cracked legs or simply buy the cleaned meat for a splurge.

Unlike many stews that taste better with time, this stew is meant to be eaten straight away to capture the freshness of the fish. (This rule was heeded with my pot of stew; since I had no time to style a pretty photo before it was devoured, I was left with only with the process shot you see here.)

Cioppino

Yield: Serves 6

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 medium fennel bulb, halved lengthwise, thinly sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • 1 (28-ounce) can crushed Italian plum tomatoes
  • 2 cups medium-bodied red wine
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar (optional)
  • 12 to 18 littleneck clams
  • 12 to 18 mussels, scrubbed and debearded
  • 1 pound large (18/20) shrimp, peeled, deveined, tails intact optional
  • 1 pound firm white fish, such as halibut, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • Chopped fresh Italian parsley for garnish

DIRECTIONS:

1. Heat the oil in a large soup pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and fennel and cook until the vegetables soften, 3 to 4 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the garlic, oregano and red pepper flakes and saute until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for about 1 minute more, stirring to create a slurry. Add the tomatoes, wine, chicken stock, orange juice, bay leaf, salt and black pepper. Bring to a boil and simmer, partially covered, for 30 minutes. Taste for seasoning and add more salt or the sugar, if desired.

2. Add the clams to the pot, cover and cook over medium heat about 5 minutes. Add the mussels, cover the pot and cook 3 to 4 minutes more. Discard any unopened clams or mussels.

3. Stir in the shrimp and halibut, partially cover the pot, and simmer until the fish is cooked through, about 5 minutes.

4. Ladle the stew into warm serving bowls and garnish with parsley. Serve with crusty bread or garlic bread.

Lynda Balslev is an award-winning food and wine writer, cookbook author and recipe developer. She also authors the blog TasteFood, a compilation of more than 600 original recipes, photos and stories.

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