I made a version of Cioppino yesterday. After doing a bit of research on the origin of the dish and scanning a number of recipes, I found lots of variation on the theme. Cioppino is basically a thick seafood soup. The type of seafood can vary greatly. That makes sense when you understand that this dish originated as a way to make a meal out of leftovers from the day’s catch.
It seems to me that the most important part of this dish is the poaching liquid. It’s also important to add the seafood based on how long it takes to poach. I’m using the word “poach” deliberately. Gentle heat produces tender seafood.
Making the poaching liquid the morning, or even the day, ahead allows the flavors to meld. It also allows for short work in pulling the dish together right before dinner. I culled the following recipe from a number of sources and added my own variations, so I can’t credit one particular source. But I guess that’s true to the spirit of a dish made by families of fishermen from the catch of the day. There’s no one definitive recipe.
Ingredients for the Poaching Liquid
2-3 TBS olive oil
1 medium to large sweet onion, diced
2-3 stalks of celery, diced (including leaves)
1 red, yellow, or orange bell pepper, diced
3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
Kosher salt/ freshly ground pepper
About 2 TBS tomato paste
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 cup dry white wine ( Pinot Grigio)
28 oz. can of good quality whole tomatoes, including liquid. Crush the tomatoes by hand or chop them in a bowl to capture the juice.
About a tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves
Additional cup of water
1-2 TBS basil pesto
Fresh shredded basil for garnish
I used 2 pounds of large shrimp, 24 little neck clams, about a half pound of striped bass cut into two inch chunks. This served four people generously, with plenty left over for tonight as a sauce over pasta.
Any other combination of firm fleshed fish, scallops, mussels, crab, etc. would work equally well. Lots of recipes on line will give you an idea of how to time different kinds of seafood.
- Heat the olive oil in a deep, heavy bottom pan. Sauté the onion, celery, and bell pepper until softened. Season with salt and pepper. Add the garlic. Saute until fragrant.
- Add the tomato paste and red pepper flakes to the pan. Stir to combine with the vegetables.
- Add the wine. Stir with a wooden spoon to scrape up any bits from the pan, and cook down until the mixture thickens.
- Add the tomatoes, along with an additional cup of water. If the mixture seems too thick, add another half cup of water.
- Season with more salt and pepper. Stir in the fresh thyme leaves, and the pesto. You might want to add about a half teaspoon of sugar if your tomatoes lacked a touch of sweetness.
- Simmer uncovered for at least 15 minutes to allow the flavors to blend and the mixture to thicken somewhat. At this point, it would be good to let the mixture cool, and then refrigerate it until you’re ready to finish the dish.
- Re-heat the mixture. Taste for seasoning. Add the seafood. Little neck clams take the longest to open, so I chose to steam them separately and add them to the fish and shrimp before serving. More importantly, even though I scrubbed them, they seemed a bit sandy to me, and I didn’t want to take the risk of adding any sand to the dish.
- I put the chunks of striped bass into the hot poaching liquid first. After about five minutes of gentle poaching, I added the shrimp. In a covered pot, shrimp will be done in about four minutes. At this point, I added the clams that were steamed open separately. If you decide to let your clams open in the poaching liquid, just be aware that they take longer than the shrimp. Add the shrimp after the clams open.
- Serve with toasted slices of French bread for dipping into the broth.