Cioppino with dungeness crab, shrimp, manila clams, and sea bass.
Christmas for our family is a holiday for all of us to come together and share an entire day of food; it also happens to be my mother’s birthday. Since she’s more of a pescatarian than a carnivore, traditional Christmas dinners like ham and goose aren’t really her cup of tea.
That’s why I decided to do a Cioppino for her this year. It’s a seafood soup similar to bouillabaisse and brodetto that grew up in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. While more colourful creation myths credit the name to a heavy Italian accent and the phrase “chip in” (as in “chip in your seafood”), the more widely accepted theory is that the name comes from a nearly identical Italian soup from the port city of Genoa called “Ciuppin”. Whatever the case, the use of live Dungeness Crabs (which are currently in season), makes this a dish that’s uniquely San Franciscan.
This is a no-holds-barred Cioppino that starts with a richly sweet fish bone and shrimp head stock. The broth comes out naturally sweet and almost creamy from the roe inside the crab and shrimp. It would make a heavenly consommé on it’s own, but my philosophy on soups is that you can never have too much flavour, so a small fishing trawler worth of seafood goes into the Cioppino along with extra aromatics, and a one-two punch of umami coming from tomatoes and anchovies.
I won’t lie to you, the seafood for this cost nearly $100 at a Chinese supermarket (i.e. you’ll pay a lot more at Whole Foods), and it’s certainly not a quick weeknight meal. That said, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a restaurant that will give you enough seafood to feed 6 people for a hundred bucks, unless you happen to live on a fishing boat. Besides, the effort involved is of a more lackadaisical variety, giving you plenty of time to catch a relative up on life in the past year, while sipping a glass of Barolo.
My advice is to use live crab if you can find it, and if you’re squeamish about deconstructing a live crustacean, throw it in the freezer just long enough to put it to sleep (but not long enough to freeze it). And whatever you do, please don’t give him a name like crusty the crustacean and let him do a little dance for you on your counter top with those big innocent looking antena-eyes, or else you might find yourself spending dinner at the ocean setting your meal free.
for fish stock
2 medium onions chopped
2 stalks celery chopped
1 medium parsnip chopped
1/2 head garlic, cloves peeled and smashed
1 750ml bottle of white wine that’s not too sweet or acidic (pinot grigio works well)
6 C water
2 lbs fish bones and heads chopped into chunks (red snapper works well)
1.5 lbs large shrimp with heads (preferably with orange roe)
2 live dungeness crab
handful of fresh thyme
1 large sprig of fresh oregano
1/2 bunch flat leaf parsley
2 bay leaves
1 Tbs kosher salt (less if you use regular salt)
2 small onions chopped
5 cloves garlic pressed
2 roma tomatoes chopped with seeds
1/3 C chopped basil
1.5 kg (53 oz) Italian stewed tomatoes in juice crushed with hands
1 Tbs minced anchovy
2 lbs red snapper or sea bass cut into large chunks
3 lbs live manilla clams
chervil or flat leaf parsley for garnish
Remove the heads from the shrimp as well as the legs and shells, but leave the tails on. Set the shells aside for the stock, then devein the shrimp by making a shallow incision along the back side of the shrimp from head to tail and removing any brown “gunk”.
Remove the legs and claws from the crab by twisting and pulling, this will subdue the poor guy pretty quickly. Remove the little flap on the underside of the crab then pry the top shell away from the body, reserving for the stock. Use a wrench or nutcracker to crack the legs and claws. Cut each body into 4 segments. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Heat a large stockpot over medium heat until hot. Add about 2 Tbs of olive oil then add the onions, celery, parsnips, and garlic. Fry until soft, fragrant and starting to brown around the edges. Add the wine and turn up to heat to bring to a boil. Boil for 5 minutes to burn off the alcohol then add the water, fish bones, shrimp heads/shells, the top shells of the crab, thyme, oregano, parsley, bay leaves, and salt. Bring this to a boil and skim off any foam that accumulates on the surface. Once there is no more foam forming, turn the heat down to medium low, cover and simmer for 2 hours. Strain through a colander and press on the solids with a potato masher to get every last bit of stock out. Discard the solids.
Rinse the pot, place over medium heat and add a splash of oil. Fry the onions and garlic until soft and fragrant, then add the tomatoes and basil. Return the fish stock you made to the pot along with the crushed stewed tomatoes, and anchovy, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium low then add the crab*, snapper, and clams and cover the pot. Let this simmer until the clams are open and the fish is cooked (about 10 minutes). Add the shrimp and continue cooking until the shrimp just turn pink (another minute or two).
Serve the Cioppino in large bowls with some chopped parsley or chervil to garnish, and a big hunk of crusty sourdough bread.
*Note: if you use precooked crab, add it in at the very end along with the shrimp