Considered by many to be the signature dish of San Francisco, Cioppino is a wonderful seafood stew that is perfect for entertaining and holidays. Serve this with crusty sourdough bread to sop up all the delicious broth for a truly Californian dining experience!
One of the highlights of a trip to San Francisco for lots of people is to enjoy the fresh seafood at one of the many great restaurants in the city. We don’t live right in San Francisco itself, but we aren’t too far away in the East Bay and I try to get into the city often for date night with my husband or to take our girls to meet up with daddy for lunch sometimes when they aren’t in school.
So imagine my chagrin when I was researching iconic foods that came out of California for the American Eats series I have been doing and realized that despite all the fantastic restaurants I’ve eaten at in the city, I had never tried cioppino. I decided to remedy that double quick.
Turns out cioppino is easy to make and so delicious. It can be made with almost any combination of seafood, but whole Dungeness crabs in the shell, clams, shrimp, bay scallops, and mussels are classic options. It’s a great special occasion recipe for the holidays or dinner parties.
What is Cioppino?
Almost every seafood restaurant of note in San Francisco has cioppino on its menu. It was created here in the late 1800’s by Italian immigrants from the Genoa region of Italy, who lived and worked as fishermen in the North Beach area of the City by the Bay.
The story goes that when fishermen would return from an unsuccessful day of fishing out on the water, they would go around the docks and other fishermen would chip in a little something to the pot – a crab or some mussels or a fish – with the understanding that they too would have days in the future when they would come home empty handed as well and need to rely on their fellow fishermen. Some say that the name “cioppino” actually comes from the idea of “chipping in”, although the more likely answer is that it is derived from the name of a Genoese fish stew called cioppin, which is very similar to the cioppino that is so popular in San Francisco today.
Regardless, cioppino is traditionally made with the freshest seafood possible in a thin broth made from tomatoes, herbs, and white wine. The catch of the day from the San Francisco bay is usually a combination of Dungeness crab, clams, bay scallops, shrimp, squid, mussels, and fish.
Bowls of cioppino are served with plenty of fresh San Francisco sourdough bread that is dipped into the sauce to sop up the rich, flavorful broth.
How do you make Cioppino?
The first step is preparing the broth, which is going to simmer for almost an hour to let the flavors really develop before adding the seafood. It’s made by sauteing onions, fennel and garlic in some butter in a heavy duty pot like a dutch oven. Then add a bunch of herbs and some white wine and cook it down until the wine has reduced by half before adding the crushed and diced tomatoes and seafood stock.
Once the sauce has simmered for long enough to really draw out the flavors of the herbs, then it is time to add the whatever seafood you have chosen for your cioppino. Feel free to use whatever seafood is freshest when you are making your cioppino.
Be sure to soak the clams and mussels in fresh water and scrub and rinse them well before cooking. Sometimes mussels have a fuzzy membrane known as a “beard” that need to be pulled off if they don’t already come that way from the market.
When you are almost ready to serve, add the clams and let them cook for 5 minutes until they just start to open, then add the mussels, followed by the crab, shrimp, bay scallops and pieces of fish. It will only take about 5 minutes more for the rest of the seafood to cook. Then sprinkle the cioppino with fresh chopped parsley and serve.
Tips for San Francisco Cioppino
- Buy the freshest seafood available to you for making San Francisco cioppino. Whole Foods is one of my go-to sources for good seafood, but Asian markets can also be a good, economical source for fresh seafood as well. Depending on where you live, there might also be a good fish market or fishmonger at your local farmer’s market that you could go to for the freshest seafood possible.
- Fair warning that authentic cioppino is typically served with the crab and other shellfish still in their shells, which means you’re in for some hands-on, messy eating. But I think that’s part of the fun for an informal gathering with friends who appreciate good seafood. Just be sure to have lots of napkins on hand!
- If you can’t find fish or seafood stock, you could use chicken stick with a small can of clam juice instead.
- Replace the white wine with more stock, if you aren’t comfortable cooking with wine.
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- 1/2 cup butter
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 bunch fresh parsley, chopped
- 1 tablespoon dried basil
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 1/2 cups white wine (optional - can replace with additional fish or chicken stock)
- 1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
- 1 (14.5 ounce) can diced tomatoes
- 5 cups fish or seafood stock*
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 pound small clams
- 1 pound mussels, scrubbed and debearded
- 2 pounds crab (I used 1 whole cooked Dungeness crab, with its legs removed from its body)
- 1 pound uncooked large shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 1 pound bay scallops
- 1/2 pound cod fillet, cut into large chunks (or other firm-fleshed fish like halibut or salmon)
- Fresh basil and parsley, chopped, for garnish
- Melt the butter over medium heat in a large stock pot, then add the onion, fennel, garlic, parsley, sauteing until the onions are soft, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, basil, salt, thyme, oregano, and red pepper flakes and saute 2 minutes longer.
- Add the white wine, crushed and diced tomatoes, fish stock, and bay leaves, then cover and reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer for 30 minutes so the flavors can blend. While the meat simmers, prepare the crab by removing the crab legs from the body (if not already done for you) and using a nutcracker to crack the shells (leave the meat in the shell) so that the meat can be easily removed once the cioppino is served.
- Increase the heat to medium and add the clams and mussels to the broth and cook for 5 minutes until they start to open. Then add the crab legs and cook for another minute, followed by the shrimp and scallops. Finally, lay the chunks of cod on top of the broth and cover and cook for 3-5 minutes until the mussels and clams are open, the shrimp curl and the scallops are just firm.
- Ladle the cioppino into large bowls garnish with chopped fresh parsley and basil. Serve with warm, crusty sourdough bread! Have plenty of napkins, extra bowls for shells, and nutcrackers and tiny forks on hand for the crab.
* You can replace all or part of the fish or seafood stock with the same amount of chicken stock along with a small bottle of clam juice instead.
** If dungeness crab is not available, you could use snow crab, blue claw, stone crab claws, or even Alaskan King crab. Also, you could just use crab meat instead of the legs and body, which would certainly make this cioppino easier to eat, although it is such a fun presentation to have the crab legs.
Adapted from AllRecipes.
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