Beginning in the late 1800s, the commercial fishing fleet out of San Francisco’s North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf was dominated by Italian fisherman, usually from the port city of Genoa. But some boats were manned by a mix of fisherman from many other nations. Working side by side with the Italians were Portuguese from Lisbon, Mexicans from Baja, Spaniards from Barcelona, Frenchmen from Marseille, Chinese fisherman who had been in the city for many years fishing for shrimp, and there were even some highly skilled long range seafarers from Basque.
Cioppino became so popular among the families in the bay area that it began to be served as street food for laborers along the wharf and by 1906, after the devastating earthquake, it was served in several restaurants in town. It is a classic San Francisco feast and always eaten with the wildly popular local crusty sourdough bread.
We live in the bay area and this feast is very close to my heart. We use as much local ingredients that we can forage, including the fish I catch, the mussels we harvest along the tide pools south of San Francisco, local wine and sourdough bread, tomatoes from the farmers market or our family’s garden, garlic from Gilroy, and herbs from our home. My version of this classic feast echoes what herbs and spices might have been added by fisherman who longed for the flavors from their own homeland, like saffron from Spain, and fennel and pastis from Marseille. San Francisco was one of the first true melting pots in America, beginning with the Gold Rush in 1849, and Cioppino is the perfect embodiment of the rich history and lore of that great city and it’s multi cultural citizens.
2 whole Dungeness crabs, cleaned and cut into pieces, or 12 oz crab meat
1 pound shrimp, shells and head off (if we buy Gulf shrimp that have shells on we remove the shells and boil them down to make broth for this feast)
24 live clams
1 pound clam meat
24 live mussels
1 pound fish filets, cut into 1 inch chunks (we use tuna, halibut, sea bass, opah, salmon, red snapper or Alaskan cod)
1 large leek, finely chopped
1 large sweet onion, finely chopped
1 large red bell pepper, finely chopped
2 cups celery, finely chopped
1 fennel bulb, finely chopped or 1 tablespoon fennel seed, ground
1 28 oz can of tomatoes (we use Italbrand, which uses San Marzano tomatoes from Italy)
1 6 oz can of tomato paste (we use Contadina brand)
2 cups white wine
5 cups seafood broth (either clam broth, fish broth or the boiled down shells of shrimp, crab or crawfish)
1/4 cup extra virgin Italian olive oil
4 tablespoons butter
6 large garlic cloves, crushed
2 tablespoons hot sauce (we use Crystal brand from Louisiana)
2 teaspoons liquid smoke (we use Wrights)
1 tablespoon fish sauce (we use Red Boat)
1 tablespoon pastis (optional but wonderful, adding a slight anise flavor)
zest of 1 orange
zest of 1 lemon
1 cup Italian parsley, roughly chopped
1 pinch of saffron
4 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 teaspoons sea salt
2 teaspoons black pepper
Finely chop the onion, bell pepper, celery, fennel bulb and leek, some food processors and their attachments make this work easier.
Using a large 12 to 14 inch fry pan, hopefully cast iron, heat the butter and olive oil and saute the vegetables on high heat until the peppers are limp and the onions are translucent, about 10 minutes.
Add the salt, pepper, oregano, thyme, saffron, garlic and bay leaves, stirring together until aromatic, 1 to 2 minutes. Pour in the white wine and allow it to deglaze and reduce, about 1 minute.
Now add the seafood broth, tomatoes (which we crush in by hand), tomato paste, fish broth, liquid smoke, pastis and hot sauce, stirring until they are well blended. Once this now richly colored sauce reaches a boiling point, turn down the heat to low, but making sure the sauce maintains a steady bubbling simmer. Leave uncovered so that it will reduce and thicken, about 20 minutes.
Place all the sauce into a stock pot. On low to medium heat, add the fish, the crab in shells and the clams, cover and simmer until the clams first begin to open.
Now add the mussels, shrimp, zest of both lemon and orange, and any seafood meats that you are using.
Stirring occasionally, cover and allow the Cioppino flavors to marry and the mussels to open, about 3 minutes.
This feast serves eight. Please include crusty sourdough bread, with parsley sprinkled on top.