“California Cuisine.” The words connote Alice Waters salads, alfalfa sprouts and tofu, farm-to-table (better yet foraged) food and Wolfgang Puck-inspired pizzas. But long before Waters or Puck came on the scene Californians had a series of unique dishes that spoke of who, what and where we were: the wild west at the end of the earth. While some of these have disappeared from memory, others such as the Hangtown Fry and Santa Maria Barbeque are as relevant today as they ever were.
But no dish says “Barbary Coast” quite as strongly as Cioppino (pronounced “chə-pē’nō”), a rich, tomato-based fish stew that originated as a classic fisherman’s stew similar to its cousins from Mediterranean regions such as Cacciucco or Brodetto from Italy, Bouillabaisse or Bourride from France or Suquet de Peix from Catalonia. It has been said that Cioppino can trace its origins to Genoa on Italy’s Ligurian coast, the town of origin of many of the Italian fisherman who settled in San Francisco’s North Beach district. It would catch on up and down California’s coast.
Originally, Cioppino was just a catch-of-the-day stew made on the boats out at sea. The ingredients going into a particular pot of the stew would be determined not by a recipe but by whatever was available. The ingredients for a Cioppino at port would be determined by an additional factor: what did not sell. As a result, over time, the ingredients of the classic San Francisco Cioppino tended to include dungeness crab, clams, mussels, shrimp, squid and miscellaneous fish.
There are apocryphal stories about the origin of Cioppino that ascribe it not to the fisherman but rather to fishmongers at the market saying “Can you chip in some” fish or shellfish toward a communal meal. The aptly named San Francisco restaurant “Cioppino” is one of the sources of these stories. Various blogs have propagated it. There is, however, no real evidence to support the tale and, frankly, it has no more real romance than the more likely picture of late 19th century fisherman stirring the stewpot on a roiling sea.
For me, though, Cioppino brings me back to one restaurant: Tadich Grill. With its long central bar, wood paneling, white coated waiters and gold leaf on the window, Tadich’s speaks of another time and another era. It was, in fact, founded in 1849. I have no idea whether the Tadich I knew in the 1990s was anything like the Tadich of the 1890s but I know it certainly felt as if it did. And if there is one dish that summarized Tadich Grill for me it was Cioppino.
Two decades later, I can still taste the beguiling broth, with its deep seafood and tomato flavors balanced by the acidity of the wine and lemon. In my mind’s eye it tasted like this:
Bay Area Cioppino
Serves: 4 to 6
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 2 leeks, finely chopped
- 2 bulb fennel, finely chopped
- 1 Dungeness Crab, live
- 3 tablespoons crab boil spices (such as Old Bay Seasoning)
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt.
- 12 large shrimp, preferably head on
- 1 28 ounce can diced tomatoes
- 2 cups Clam juice or fish stock
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 2 cups dry white wine
- 3 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 lemons, juiced
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- 2 Bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon fresh basil, minced
- 1 tablespoon fresh oregano (or marjoram), minced
- Red pepper flakes to taste
- 2 pounds fish (such as halibut or sea bass), boned and cut in 1″ cubes
- 12 clams (or mussels), cleaned and de-bearded
- 4 tablespoons Italian parsley chopped
- 1 boule Sourdough bread
1. Sweat the Aromatics. In a large soup pot sweat the onion, leeks and fennel in the olive oil until soft.
6. Plate the Dish. Ladle the stew into large bowls,placing one whole claw in shell in each bowl. Garnish with the Italian parsley and serve with Sourdough bread.