An iconic seafood stew that evolved in the late 19th century when Italian and Portuguese fisherman ruled the bays of San Francisco and Monterrey, some say its name originated from “Ciuppin,” the Genoese word for fish stew. Other folklore holds that it came from the heavily accented fishermen who called out to one another to “chip in” to the communal stew pot any leftover scraps from the day’s catch.
But wherever the name came from, the basic recipe is always the same: any combination of fresh fish and shellfish–like calamari, cod, halibut, sardines, crabs, clams, mussels and/or shrimp–cooked in a flavorful broth made of fish heads, herbs, onions, tomatoes, fennel and wine, sherry or vermouth.
In this version, all the flavorful veggies, herbs, spices and vermouth are there…but since no one (sadly) boils their own fish heads anymore, I’ve called for good quality seafood broth or chicken broth mixed with anchovy paste, instead.
And by bumping up the ratio of vegetables to seafood, the result is lower in calories but just as satisfying as the original…which means you can afford to have a slender slice of toasted sourdough bread with it as well.
So if you’re looking for a taste of the bay area without making a trip, pour a glass of red wine, put on a little Tony Bennett and try this!
SKINNY SAN FRANCISCO CIOPPINO
(makes about 8 2-cup bowls)
Though this recipe is already easy, it’s really a snap–and actually tastes better– if you make the broth in the morning or even the night before you plan to serve it, stowing the whole pot in the fridge. When you’re ready to finish it, marinate your fresh chunks of fish filets in a bowl with a few tablespoons of the cold broth for 20 minutes to 2 hours, bring the broth back to a hard simmer and drop in the fresh seafood.
2 yellow onions, chopped
3-4 stalks of celery, including leaves
2 fennel bulbs, cored and chopped or sliced
2 T garlic, chopped
2 T dried oregano
1 T dried red pepper flakes
1 pound brown button mushrooms, sliced
A bundle of fresh thyme and parsley, tied with twine (If you don’t have fresh thyme, you can substitute 1 teaspoon of dried thyme. But don’t bother with dried parsley, it has no real flavor.)
1/2 c extra dry vermouth (You can use white wine, but vermouth is better.)
1 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes with basil
1 28 ounce can diced tomatoes with juice (For a little more depth of flavor, try the fire roasted variety.)
6 cups good quality seafood broth OR substitute 6 cups chicken broth mixed with 2 t of anchovy paste
2-3 pounds fresh seafood, a mix of boneless white fish filets and shellfish works best (Here I’ve used 2 pounds of cod filets, a 1/2 pound of raw, peeled, whole shrimp and a 1/2 pound of calamari (squid) cut into rings…but I’ve also used halibut, haddock and pollack. I stay away from swordfish because of mercury issues and though I have used Pacific snapper, the pin bones can be tricky so I usually avoid it in stews.)
1/2 c fresh basil, chopped
1/2 c fresh parsley, chopped
1/4 c feathery fennel fronds, chopped (optional)
Heat a large soup pot (enameled if you have it for easy cleaning) over medium high heat.
Add the garlic, oregano and red pepper flakes and stir until you begin to smell the garlic. Toss in the mushrooms and cook a few minutes more.
Add the bundle of herbs and vermouth and stir 2 minutes.
As soon as it starts to boil, turn heat down to very low and simmer for 20 minutes.
Let it cool slightly and toss it with your chopped cod or halibut to marinate while you simmer the broth 20 minutes more.
Remove the bundle of herbs and drop in the chunks of white fish, pushing them down into the broth.
Pour in the can of clams with its juice and toss in the the fresh basil, parsley, and feathery fennel fronds, stirring so the clams warm and the herbs slightly wilt.
Serve with a couple of thin wedges of toasted sourdough and add more fresh herbs on top if you like. (Whole Foods now makes a sourdough with whole grains for extra fiber that’s delicious.)
You can use any combination of seafood you prefer, just check to make sure whatever white fish you use is truly without bones. And if you can get fresh clams or mussels, scrub them really, really well and allow 5 minutes cooking time for them to open. (Even when I can get fresh clams, I still add the canned clams…that way there are bits of clam meat throughout and the juice from the clams adds extra flavor to the broth.)
RE-USE, RE-PURPOSE, RE-CYCLE
This recipe makes about 8 two-cup servings. If you’re single or have small family, you can always freeze half of the broth before you add the seafood and thaw a week or two later to make another meal in minutes!