Monday, October 17, 2011

Cioppino: Chopping up Veggies, Tossing in Fish, and Serving up Hearty Food-Joy

Last night's supper: cioppino made with fresh, local crab legs. 
Cioppino (choh-pee-no). I had my first bowl of this tomato-seafood chowder in Santa Barbara (delicious at Brophy Brothers) as a grown-up. I'm a sucker for any soup served as a main course. But even more so for tomato-based soups. You know the great ones: bouillabaise, gazpacho, posole, Manhattan clam chowder, tomato bisque. Cioppino, with its odd assortment of vegetables and fresh fish and shellfish was most definitely love at first slurp, and naturally I thought, "Cioppino, where have you been all my life?"

Cioppino has an Italian name. But it didn't originate in Europe. No, cioppino is an American contribution to the culinary world (there are some, darn it--pumpkin pie, cranberry relish, Boston baked beans, turkey, succotash, cornbread--sounds like Thanksgiving, huh?). An Italian-American contribution, it turns out, from San Francisco, circa mid-19th century.

Cioppino either came from an Italianized pronunciation of chip in (as in, add to the communal soup pot) or chop in (lots of chopping of fresh fish and veggies)--or it came from ciuppin, the Ligurian fish stew. The origin is unclear. But San Franciscan fishermen developed it and you can enjoy it at restaurants all over the west coast--or in your own home. Here are the secrets, spelled out for you, if you'd like to do it yourself. The soup is simple to make, but it calls for a zillion ingredients. Do not be intimidated--many of these you will have on hand. A good time to make cioppino is when you are blessed with a bounty of fresh seafood--but don't hesitate to use frozen. All will be well in the end.

Soup Ingredients
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)
2 tablespoons anchovies, minced
5 cloves garlic, crushed
1 cup chopped onion or shallots (sweet onion is excellent)
1 fresh bay leaf (if you have it--if not, two dried)
6 stalks celery, chopped
1 zucchini (optional, but excellent)
1 red, yellow, or orange bell pepper, chopped (optional, but excellent)
2 1/2 cups chopped tomatoes (or marinara sauce, if you don't have fresh)
2 tablespoons tomato paste (if using fresh tomatoes--if using maranara, skip this)
1 quart (4 cups) clam broth (I recommend Better than Bouillion brand concentrated soup stocks, by Superior Touch--they are all MSG-free)
1 cup red wine
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup fresh, chopped basil or 3 tablespoons dried basil
1 tablespoon ground fennel seed (or 1/2 cup fresh fennel)
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary (or dried)
2 tablespoons minced fresh oregano (or 1 teaspoon dried)
salt and pepper to taste
Optional: red pepper flakes to taste
Chopped Italian parsley or cilantro to garnish

Seafood Add-ins
Generally, almost anything goes when deciding what seafood to add to cioppino. Salmon, rockfish, grouper, cod, whiting, halibut, orange roughy—any firm-fleshed fish (avoid delicate fish, such as sole and catfish because they are more likely to disintegrate, or any fish with too strong a flavor, such as tuna). Chop fresh fish into largish chunks before adding. If frozen, add whole and separate into bite-sized pieces before serving.

For shellfish, crab legs, langostino, shrimp, clams, and mussels are good options, as are calamari and scallops (stay away from oysters—again, too much flavor will overpower cioppino). Rinse thoroughly and add in with shells—the shells provide flavor and are part of the hands-on fun of eating cioppino. As always, toss any unopened clams or mussels.

You can also buy an excellent "cioppino-ready" mixture of frozen seafood—which includes scallops and calamari--at Trader Joe's.

Whatever you add in, use only 2 or 3 cups total and add in only during the last 5 to 7 minutes of cooking time to keep the fish tender but cooked through.

Orchestrating Cioppino 
  1. Start with a heavy soup pot—one that you can fry in. Saute the onions, garlic, and anchovies until tender (about 10 minutes).
  2. Add in all other ingredients except lemon juice and boil lightly for 15 to 20 minutes—long enough to make the vegetables tender and to cook in the wine.
  3. Add in 2 or 3 cups seafood and shellfish of your choice. You do not have to have a huge variety—last night I made this with just crab legs, since my husband and daughter had caught some fresh).
  4. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes, until the seafood is cooked through but still tender. 
  5. Remove from heat, add salt and pepper to taste, pour in the lemon juice, garnish if desired, and serve in large bowls, placing some shellfish in each bowl. Provide a discard bowl at the table for the shells. Also serve sourdough bread or cheese bread alongside the soup.

With thanks to my foodie friend, Philip Jenkins, who pointed out that cioppino came from San Francisco.