As regular readers will know, this blog is focused on authentic Italian home cooking, the kind that you might eat in Italy itself. But it is also, in some sense, about the Italian diaspora, so it is only fitting that, from time to time—at least once a year—we feature an Italian-American dish, and Columbus Day seems as good a time as any to do just that.
This Columbus Day I’d like to offer up for your delectation Cioppino, which may be San Francisco’s most important contribution to the culinary world. (No, dear readers, in my book “Rice-a-Roni” doesn’t really count.) Cioppino is clearly a relative of the many fish soups of Italy and in fact, is said to be a descendant of the Genoan version called ciuppin (see notes below), though some credit the Tuscan cacciucco. You might even assume, especially given the Italian-sounding name, that it was an Italian fish soup. Its extravagant layering on of flavors, however, gives it away as a New World creation. The soffritto includes three different members of the onion family, plus red and black pepper, as well as, in some versions, the unusual but appealing addition of fresh fennel. Multiple herbs are added to the broth, itself made from wine, fish stock and tomatoes, and a dollop of tomato paste. And, finally, of course, lots of fish and shellfish. The whole dish is a tribute to ostentatious abundance, one of the hallmarks of Italian-American cooking.
For the soffritto (flavor base):
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 large shallot, chopped
- 1 medium fennel bulb, trimmed and chopped
- Salt and black pepper
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- Red pepper flakes, to taste
- Olive oil
For the broth:
- 2 Tbs. tomato paste
- 1 large can (28 oz., 800g) of canned tomatoes, passed through a food mill (or use crushed tomatoes)
- 16 oz. (2 cups/500 ml) of fish stock or 2 bottles of clam juice
- 1 cup (250 ml) of white wine
- A sprig of fresh thyme
- A bay leaf, preferably fresh
For the seafood:
- 1 lb. (500g) of halibut or other firm-fleshed fish, but into cubes
- 12 jumbo shrimp (as big as you can find)
- 12 clams
- 12 mussels
Optional additional seafood:
- 12 sea scallops
- 4 small crabs, trimmed and cut up
In a large pot, sauté the onion, shallot and fennel gently is abundant olive oil until the onion is very soft and translucent, seasoning as you go with salt and black pepper. (Add a spoonful of water if you like, to help soften the vegetables and prevent browning.) Then add the garlic and red pepper, and continue the sautéing for just a few moments, until you can smell the garlic’s aroma.
Add the tomato paste and continue cooking for about 30 seconds or so to ‘open’ its flavors. Then add the milled (or crushed) tomatoes. Allow the tomatoes to simmer for 10-15 minutes, or until they start to separate from the oil and take on a ‘saucy’ consistency. Taste the tomatoes; they should have lost their rawness—if not, continue cooking for a few more minutes. Then add the fish stock or clam juice, and the white wine, together with the thyme and bay leaf. Simmer for another 10-15 minutes to allow the flavors to meld and the liquid to reduce a bit. Taste the liquid carefully; it should be well seasoned and quite intense. If not, adjust for seasoning and, if it seems a little thin, let it simmer a bit more.
Now, add the seafood, beginning with the fish, then the shrimp (and scallops and crabs if using) then the clams and mussels on top. Bring up the heat to a brisk simmer, cover the pot, and let it all cook for about 5 minutes, or until the clams and mussels open. Top with some minced parsley and a drizzle of olive and serve.
My favorite way to serve fish soups of any kind is to place toasted bread, rubbed with garlic on both sides and drizzled with olive oil, into the bottom of deep plates and ladle your fish soup over. Make sure everyone has a nice balance of seafood and sauce. Then drizzle a bit more olive oil, if you like, over it all.
There are lots of Cioppino recipes floating around the web. This version if my personal riff off a recipe from Giada de Laurentiis, ‘celebrity chef’ and grand-daughter of film producer Dino de Laurentiis, with a few touches from others I’ve seen. In tweaking the recipe to my own taste, I’ve changed the way in which the soffritto is handled, as well as the sequence of ingredients, adding steps here and taking others away. And I’ve toned down the typical recipe a bit, making it a bit perhaps a bit less American and a bit more Italian than most versions.
Of course, the exact choice of seafood is up to you. After all, this is a fisherman’s dish made from the leftover catch of the day (see below). In addition to the types of seafood listed above, you could add squid or octopus, for example, but if you do, then you will need to simmer these a good 30-40 minutes, or until tender, before adding the rest of the seafood. For a truly authentic Cioppino, they say you should include Dungeness crab, cut up but unshelled, to your soup.
Some versions of Cioppino omit the fennel, and add the other typical soffritto vegetables, carrot and celery. I actually don’t like the taste of carrot with seafood, and I do like the subtle anise flavor that the fennel lends to the dish. It reminds me a bit of bouillabaise. Some versions call for some green pepper and I’ve even come across recipes that call for jalapeños, but neither options appeals to me at all. And the herbs that go into the cooking liquid can vary. Modern recipes tend to include dried herbs, including dried basil (ugh!) but if you can find fresh herbs it will, of course, improve the dish enormously. Which version is the original/authentic one is probably unknowable and I certainly don’t hold myself out as an expert. What I do know if that the version offered today makes for very good eating.
The exact origins of cioppino are obscure, but sources tend to agree that it was developed by Italian and Portuguese immigrant fisherman in San Francisco in the late 19th century. There are various stories about the name, but the most common and logical explanation is that it derives from ciuppin, a Ligurian fish soup. Other stories have it that the name derives from ‘chip in’, since the soup was a collective effort of the various fishermen who each added their bit from their leftover catches.
A fellow blogger has written in to point out the strong resemblance that Cioppino bears to cacciucco, the fish soup typical of the city of Livorno in Tuscany. She’s quite right about that. In fact, Cioppino is closer in culinary terms to cacciucco than to either ciuppin or, for that matter, buridda, the better known Ligurian fish stew. And yet all the sources attribute Genoan origins to Cioppino.
The reason probably lies in history. While in most of the US, most Italian immigrants came from Campania and points further south, California was different. There was a tremendous influx of Ligurians during the “Gold Rush” in the 1850s and the genovesi became the dominant group among Italian-Americans there. They played a major role in the development of the state, including founding the Bank of America, the Del Monte canned food company and Ghirandelli chocolates. And they planted the first vinyards in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys (although the Mondavis, who would play such a crucial role in the 20th century winemaking in California, were from Le Marche). An excellent article on this fascinating history can be found here.