Cioppino is an Italian-American seafood stew first developed in San Francisco in the late 1800s. Originally made by Italian fisherman who had settled in the region, it was crafted directly on fishing boats using rudimentary cooking tools before making its way into local restaurants and beyond. Much like the French Bouillabaisse or the Eastern European Brudet, Cioppino is made with a variety of seafood, depending on whatever is on hand. Also, apparently I’m obsessed with tomato-based seafood stews, because this is my third such recipe in the past year.
The origin of this dish’s name is the subject of some debate. The most likely answer is that it comes from the word ciuppin, which means “chopped” in the Ligurian dialect spoken in Genoa, Italy’s largest seaport, from where many immigrants in the San Francisco area originated. The idea is that fishermen chopped up a bunch of fish for the stew. There’s also a seafood stew from Genoa called Ciuppin, so there’s that, too. But a more compelling origin is that the name comes from Italian-Americans asking their fellow fishermen to “chip in” some seafood for a communal feast, and their broken English formed the word we know today as Cioppino.
No matter its etymology, this is a quick and versatile dish to make for any weeknight or weekend, allowing you to maximize your flavors based on whatever seafood is on sale at your local market. For us, king crab was (somewhat) affordable the other day, so that’s what we used to spice up our dinner. Just stick with the underlying foundation of the recipe and you can’t go wrong.
Cioppino (San Francisco Seafood Stew)
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (adjust for spiciness)
1/4 tsp dried basil
1/4 tsp dried thyme
2 bay leaves
1 large (28oz) can crushed tomatoes (or 4 tomatoes, chopped)
2 cups clam juice
1/2 cup dry white wine (chardonnay, pinot grigio, etc)
50 live clams, washed
1 lb raw shrimp
1/2 lb dungeness or king crab legs, cut at each joint
1 lb firm white fish (halibut, snapper, mahi mahi), cut into bite-sized chunks
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley to garnish
1. Warm the olive oil in a stockpot over medium heat, then add the onion; sauté until softened, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes, basil, thyme, and bay leaves; sauté until the garlic is aromatic, about 1 minute.
2. Stir in the tomatoes and clam juice; bring to a simmer and reduce heat to med/low. Simmer uncovered for 20 minutes to allow the flavors to marry.
3. Add the clams and white wine. Bring to a simmer and cover, cooking until the clams have started to open, about 5 minutes. Stir in the shrimp and crab legs, then carefully add the fish pieces (don’t stir after you’ve added the fish). Cover again and cook until the shrimp and fish are opaque and the clams are fully opened, another 3-4 minutes.
4. Taste for salt and pepper, and garnish with parsley.
** 1/2 tsp of red chili flakes makes for a mildly spicy stew; I suggest adding or decreasing in 1/4 tsp increments depending on preference. You could always add a splash of Tabasco or similar hot sauce at the end to spice it up.
** Dungeness is traditionally used with this recipe, but it is hard to find here on the East Coast. Along with cutting the crab at each joint, you can cut along the length of a king crab shell with kitchen shears to make it easier to eat. Similarly, you can crack the dungeness shell with some crab crackers before adding them to the soup.
** Since using crab can significantly raise the cost of making this meal, consider adding in more fish or shrimp to save some dough. Some recipes call for mussels as well; you could always cut the amount of clams in half and replace them with 25 mussels. Calamari is also an option, add it with the fish.