Flash in the Pan 

The true San Francisco treat

Cioppino is a seafood stew that originated in San Francisco, supposedly a creation of the Italian-born fishmonger Achille Paladini. It was originally a stew made with whatever fish was available when the boats came back, aka catch of the day, with some Dungeness crab thrown in the tomato- and wine-based broth. Cioppino is thought to have evolved from ciuppin, a dish from Genoa, Italy, that also evolved as a way to use whatever the fishermen brought home.

Fishing villages and port towns around the Mediterranean, and much of the world, have their local chowders that make the most of whatever bones, bits and pieces, not to mention chunks of flesh, are available. Another such dish is the French bouillabaisse, which is typically made in large batches with saffron and a diverse assortment of fish and shellfish, including the boney rascasse, or scorpionfish. Bouillabaisse also has potatoes, and, sensibly, is often served with rouille, a mayo-like emulsion of egg, olive oil, garlic, saffron and cayenne pepper, which is rubbed on grilled slices of bread. There are many other Italian, Spanish and French versions as well, such as cacciucco, brodetto, buridda and bourride.

While each of these recipes has its own distinguishing characteristics, they're also all flexible, by design, thanks to the catch-of-the-day mentalities that shaped them. If you put fresh fish, olive oil, tomato, parsley, lemon, onion, garlic and butter in a pot, the result will generally taste good.

Catch-of-the-day flexibility can be applied at the fish counter as well as the dock. When shopping for my fish soup, I assess what's available, cheap, fresh and in line with my sustainability principles (for which I use Seafood Watch as a reference).

Cod (Pacific or North Atlantic) and mussels are the backbone of my soup. Cod because it's flaky and delicate, and the disintegrating chunks of flesh find their way into the mussel shells. When you open the mussel shells you find not only a tiny mollusk but pieces of fish, plus maybe a garlic chunk, carrot fragment or a shred of tomato skin. Other similarly textured fish, like salmon or sole, and other bivalves, like clams or even oysters, can produce a similar result. I'm open to crab, scallops, sardines, octopus, snails, sea urchins and whatever else meet my criteria with respect to price, ethics and quality.

  • photo courtesy of Kelly Sue DeConnick

Shellfish contribute more than just their flesh; the shells add flavor to the broth. This is a key distinction between cioppino and its mother soup, ciuppin, which contains only fish. I will sometimes buy a token section of crab leg, but mussels are a much cheaper way to get both shell in your soup and protein in your belly. And mussels are some of the most plentiful and sustainable goodies in the sea.

Another difference between cioppino and ciuppin is that ciuppin, which translates to "chopped," is a pureed soup. I'm firmly in the chunky, San Francisco-style camp. While some disintegrated fish is crucial, I want large chunks as well, like whole shrimp, and maybe some scallops, as well as my shells and their innards.

Cod is so fragile that careful effort is required to ensure the filets don't completely atomize in the soup. My recipe begins with adding 1 pound cod piece to a mix of 2 tablespoons each olive oil and butter in a heavy bottom pan on low/medium heat. As it slowly browns to the bottom, I add to the pan 2 cups of a mix of equal parts onion, carrot and celery, all coarsely grated. Add 2 or more cloves worth of minced garlic. Mix and sauté these veggies without disturbing the fish. Then add a 14-ounce can of chopped tomatoes, or the rough equivalent in fresh tomatoes, 2 teaspoons sea salt, a teaspoon of thyme, 2 tablespoons of capers, the juice of two lemons, a tablespoon of paprika to brighten the already bright soup, a cup each of red and white wine, and enough water that everything is swimming, except the fish that stuck to the bottom of the pan.

Raise the heat to medium and simmer.

As it cooks, just to make sure I get my point across, I also like to add a little Thai-style fish sauce. Anchovies or anchovy paste would do the trick—in fact, those would be more authentic—but that bottle of fish juice is so convenient.

As it simmers, wash one bunch of parsley and chop off the bottom inch of the stems. Then, holding the leaf-end of the bunch, begin mincing the stems, working your way towards the leaves. Add the chopped stem and leaf to the soup. Chop the leaves for later use as a garnish.

Traditional versions of this soup are served with grilled bread, for dipping into and mopping up broth.

Put a bowl for empty shells in the center of the table, make sure everyone has plenty of napkins, and serve the soup garnished with bright green parsley leaves. Imagine yourself in some weathered seafood stall near a salty waterfront, watching the sailors, whores, poets, cargo and seagulls go by.

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