Do you ever visit a city just to taste its local food specialty? Please say yes, so I don’t feel like I’m alone. Think about the opportunities: clam chowder in Boston, pizza in Naples, fish and chips in London, waffles in Bruges, macarons in Paris, mussels in Marseille . . . the list goes on. While one of the top dishes popular with tourists in San Francisco is clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl, the city is also the birthplace of Cioppino, an Italian-American fish stew that is second-to-none.
Last time we were in San Francisco, I sought out Cioppino’s, a Fishermen’s Wharf restaurant noted for its cioppino, and let me tell you, it was an experience. When the waiter set my place with a stack of napkins, wet wipes, and a bib, I knew I was in for something special. It took me a long time to eat my meal: a bowl brimming with rich tomato broth, full of crab, scallops, prawns, mussels, clams, calamari and more.
I had such great memories of that meal that when we found ourselves in an out-of-the-way beachfront restaurant near the westernmost point of Europe on the Portuguese coast a few years later, I quickly chose cioppino from the menu, as it was the house specialty. While the list of truly memorable meals I’ve had over the years is getting longer, this one was certainly near the top.
So yesterday, while planning our next vacation and reminiscing about our past trips, I suddenly got a craving to make a simple cioppino. Here on the West Coast, we have easy access to a variety of fresh wild-caught seafood and Denis and I take advantage of that whenever we can. Using fresh or fresh-frozen seafood caught close to home guarantees that it is full of flavour and needs little else to complement it.
You’ll feel like a Michelin Star chef when you serve this one, but you certainly don’t need to be one. Here’s my recipe for a simple cioppino that anyone can make. It makes a one-pot meal with whatever seafood you have available, all gently simmered in a flavourful tomato-based broth. Easy-peasy.
- 4 slices bacon, sliced into 1 inch pieces
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 2 stalks celery, chopped
- 1/2 head fennel, thinly sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 large shallot, finely chopped
- 1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 798ml (28 oz can of tomatoes with juice
- 5 cups fish stock OR 2 cups clam juice and 3 cups chicken stock
- 1 cup dry white wine (optional)
- 1 bay leaf
- 6 cups seafood of your choice or more, such as:
- inch uncooked white fish fillets. I used Ling cod, chopped into 1 1/2 pieces
- inch smoked salmon. I used smoked wild sockeye salmon, chopped into 1 1/2 pieces
- uncooked large shrimp or prawns, shelled
- crab meat
- fresh clams, scrubbed
- fresh mussels, scrubbed and debearded
- In a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat, cook bacon until almost crispy. Add onion, celery, and fennel and cook 10 minutes or until onion is translucent.
- Add garlic and shallot and cook for 2 minutes more.
Add red pepper flakes and tomato paste and stir until combined.
- Add canned tomatoes, stock, wine, and bay leaf.
- Cover, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 30 minutes to allow flavours to blend.
- Add a combination of fish and shellfish and cook for 5 minutes or until just cooked through and mussels and clams have opened (discard any that do not open)
- Remove bay leaf.
- Check seasoning and add sea salt and/or more red pepper flakes.
- Ladle into bowls and serve immediately with crusty bread.
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