I often feel the US has no real “indigenous” foods. Walk into a Thai restaurant and you know what you’re likely to find on a menu. The same would be true of an Ethiopian, Mexican, Italian or Japanese restaurant. What can you expect, walking into an American restaurant? Hot dogs and hamburgers? Yep, probably. These, while being of German descent, have been appropriated by the US and are now probably the closest thing to a true American food that you’d find short of perhaps a Venti Latte.
Well, ok, maybe not, Cajun and Creole foods, while certainly having significant influence from Europe, Africa and the Indignous people of the South East United States, it’s very clearly an American food.
Cioppino, in much the same way, is an American stew. It’s heavily Italian, with the name stemming from a north-east Italian word meaning “to chop”. This stew, born in San Francisco about 150 years ago, was the creation of an Italian fish wholesaler named “Achille Paladini”, later dubbed “The Fish King” by The Little Mermaid, Dory and Nemo.
A true Cioppino (pronounced CHUH-PEE-NO) is made from super fresh seafood, but unwanted and leftover seafood, meaning crabs missing legs, lobster sans claws, small unwanted shrimps and clams that may or may not ever open. It’s all fresh and “catch of the day”, but is akin to the meager late night selection offered at the local grocery store, as opposed to the fresh bounty found in the morning. These super fresh scraps were tossed, bones, shells and all, into a bubbling hot cauldron of tomatoes, wine, garlic, and other aromatics like herbs and lemon.
Growing up, my family would visit San Francisco about thrice a year. It was a 4-hour drive, and it seemed to always result in a trip to the wharf, where we’d see wax museums, small bizarre rides, chocolate factories, the Sharper Image store and seafood restaurants, where my father would bib up and order a giant bowl of Cioppino. Watching sea lions at the wharf was my visit to the mid-80’s San Francisco Waterfront, Cioppino was my father’s.
With 25 years of professional culinary experience, one of my fondest early creations is Cioppino. Knowing it was my father’s favorite, I set out to recreate the best. I’d find the best sea foods. I’d go to farmer’s markets to find the best ingredients. I’d read through family cookbooks to try and procure the best recipes. Then I’d make it. I made it old school, too. I used squid and shrimp and crabs with claws. A bit spicy from peppers, a bit tart from the wine and lemon, with a touch of sweet coming from the onions and garlic, but oh the pungent salt coming from the bivalves and the funk coming from the mustard within the crustaceans. What an amazing mélange it was.
While I can appreciate what slow heat and mellow time can do to a bowl of acidic seafood, I’ve also acquired a taste for raw scallops and medium rare shrimps. I love the vibrancy of super fresh herbs, with their aromas just being released by the heat. Truth be told, my palate has changed and I tend to prefer fresh vibrancy over broken down stew.
This recipe, as presented, is actually a quick or “Haste Cioppino” potentially even referred to as a “Lazy Cioppino”, because it’s been shelled, beheaded and made easy to eat. Bib not required!