This is our week for dad stuff, I guess. My dad and I first made cioppino when we were living in the San Francisco bay area in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Cioppino was a local specialty, a hearty fish stew developed by Italian and Portuguese fishermen who worked the California coast, and it became the special meal we would make together after we discovered James Beard’s recipe for it. We’d go out shopping for our seafood—including a healthy amount of local Dungeness crab—then spend the evening slowly preparing the stew, before serving it with a crusty San Francisco-style sourdough bread. It was one of my favorite meals, and probably my favorite meal to make.
This week my dad and I decided to take a trip down memory lane and make it again (it had been about 15 years since the last time). We knew we would have to make do without Dungeness crab, but it still seemed like a great idea. We dug out James Beard’s recipe and made up our shopping list. Neither of us remembered the dried mushrooms being in the recipe we’d used previously, but there they were on the list of ingredients that came with his version included in The New James Beard, and they did add a lot of character to the broth. We served the stew with sourdough baguette slices, a simple Romaine lettuce salad, and lots of Pinot Noir (I had just taken dad to see Sideways a couple of days earlier, after all).
Beard’s recipe calls for a lot of seafood, and if you follow his guidelines exactly, the pricetag for this meal can get a little out of hand. I recommend mixing and matching the seafood in such a way as to keep the meal affordable. Cioppino is supposed to be a working-class meal, focusing on using fresh but reasonably priced seafood is more in keeping with the spirit of the original. In the case of the Cioppino we made on Thursday night, I would replace the crabmeat (it’s very hard to get fresh crab in these-here parts, and it’s rather pricey, given the quality) with some extra shrimp or some fish. Also, feel free to replace the clams with either mussels or oysters, depending what’s available, what’s the freshest, and what’s the least expensive—both of these variations are perfectly acceptable. Of course, if you have access to plentiful amounts of fresh, inexpensive shellfish, by all means, knock yourself out. Finally, Beard recommends using sea bass or striped bass for the fish—we used a combination of monkfish and tilapia (a firmer fish and a flakier fish, not unlike the kind of combination you’d used in a Bouillabaisse) and it turned out perfectly. All you have to do is stagger the cooking times slightly, so that the firmer fish goes in a few minutes earlier than the flakier fish.
Here’s the recipe:
1 quart clams (in the shell)
1 cup dry white or red wine
1/2 cup olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
1/4 cup dried mushrooms, soaked in water and drained, while retaining then straining (through cheesecloth or a coffee filter) the soaking liquid
4 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
4 tbsp Italian tomato paste
2 cups red wine, such as Pinot Noir or Zinfandel
2 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp finely chopped fresh basil
3 pounds thick fish fillets, cut into serving pieces (sea bass and striped bass are recommended, but almost any firm-fleshed fish will do)
1 pound crabmeat
1 pound raw shrimp, shelled
3 tbsp chopped parsley
Steam the clams in the 1 cup of white or red wine until they open, discarding any that don’t open. Strain the broth through two thicknesses of cheesecloth (or a coffee filter) and reserve.
Heat the oil in a deep 8-quart pot and cook the onion and garlic until the onion has become translucent. Add the pepper and mushrooms and cook for 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook 4 minutes. Add the strained clam broth, the strained mushroom broth, tomato paste, and 2 cups red wine. Season with salt and pepper and simmer for about 20 minutes. Taste and correct seasoning. Add the basil and the fish, and just cook the fish through, about 3 to 5 minutes. Finally, add the steamed clams, crabmeat, and shrimp. Heat until shrimp are just cooked through, roughly another 3 minutes. Do not overcook. Sprinkle with parsley and serve with crusty bread (preferably sourdough), a salad, and lots of red wine.