Though the name sounds distinctly Italian, cioppino is actually an all-American soup. It's modeled after the delicious tomato-based fish stew common to all the coastal villages of Italy. Loosely known in Italy as zuppa di pesca, or fish soup, the recipe differs wildly from region to region and is dependent on what sorts of seafood are local and available.

Cioppino is thought to have originated with Italian (or possibly Portugese) immigrants in San Francisco, California. No one's quite sure exactly who came up with the recipe; all that's truly known is that the word cioppino means "fish soup" in the Genoese dialect.

Cioppino is comparable to bouillabaisse, the famous French fish stew, in terms of flavor and expense. Both require massive amounts of seafood. Both are hearty, beautiful dishes that are meant to serve large crowds. Both recipes have humble beginnings in fishing villages, and both have grown to have great cachet in gourmet restaurants.

The primary difference between cioppino and bouillabaisse is that cioppino has a true tomato base, while bouillabaisse has a "white" base with saffron and a few tomatoes thrown in for good measure. (I think of bouillabaisse as cioppino's snooty French cousin.)

Bouillabaisse, as sneff notes in his excellent node on the subject, can't truly be made outside of Provence due to the inclusion of scorpion fish, which are difficult to find elsewhere. Cioppino, on the other hand, is much more democratic. As long as its fresh and comes from the sea, you'll find it in some cioppino recipe or another.

The one unifying factor in the dizzying array of cioppino recipes (aside from the ubiquitous tomato base) is the inclusion of firm-fleshed white fish, such as halibut or sea bass. The fish needs to be meaty and dense to stand up to the rich broth.

One major caveat: if you want to make this dish, be prepared to shell out some serious cash. Seafood may be dirt cheap in Italian villages and on San Francisco fishing boats, but anywhere else this stew is truly an extravagance. It also requires a rather time-consuming process, since really good cioppino simply can't be made without an excellent fish stock and a long-simmered tomato base. It also requires a little bit of hustle, as each serving must be prepared to order. It's an incredible dish, though; a real show-stopper. If you want to impress your guests, this is the soup for you.

Leave yourself a nice lazy afternoon to make up a pot of this stuff. It's created in steps, so it will take several hours to complete the recipe from start to finish. Take an hour or so to shop for the freshest seafood you can find. Put on some music, grab a couple of bottles of good, dry white wine - one for the stock, one for the cook - and enjoy the experience of making a gourmet meal for your family or friends.

The most important thing to remember when cooking cioppino is to put your own stamp on the finished product. There's simply no "right way" to do this wonderful soup; all cioppino recipes are really nothing more than rudimentary blueprints. What counts is the use of fresh seafood and the imagination of the cook. As long as you have good stock, make a great tomato base, and don't overcook the ingredients, you can pretty much add whatever you'd like in terms of seafood.

Almost every single spice in the following blueprint is negotiable as far as amounts are concerned. It's a recipe that I cobbled together from about a zillion different sources. You like garlic? Add more. Don't like fennel? Leave it out. You get the picture.

Sneff's recipe for fish stock is perfect for this dish, as he uses white wine rather than water. Please refer to his recipe for step two.

This recipe will serve four to six people easily, probably with some yummy leftovers.

Ladle it out in generous portions. Serve it with a lovely loaf of crusty Italian bread to sop up all the broth.

Cioppino

Step one: make the tomato base

You'll need the following ingredients:

  • 1 Tablespoon butter
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • Splash or two of good dry white wine (use whatever you're drinking)
  • Splash of red wine vinegar
  • Five 8 oz. cans of tomato sauce
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced (more if you'd like)
  • 1/2 a large onion, chopped
  • 2 carrots, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, chopped (optional, if you like the heat)
  • 1 rib celery, chopped
  • handful fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces
  • couple of sprigs fresh oregano
  • 1/4 tsp. fennel seed (or 1/2 bulb fresh fennel, thinly sliced)
  • big handful fresh parsley, roughly chopped
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 clove (optional)
  • several grinds black pepper
  • a pinch or two of crushed red pepper flakes
  • Salt to taste

In a heavy-bottomed skillet or stock pot, heat olive oil and butter over medium heat until butter begins to sizzle.

Add garlic, onion, green pepper, carrot, and celery. (If you're using fresh fennel instead of fennel seed, add it here also.) Sautee over medium heat until onion is just transparent.

Add basil, oregano, parsley, fennel seed, clove, black pepper, red pepper flakes, and bay leaf. Sautee briefly until you can smell the spices combining nicely.

Add a couple of splashes of good white wine along with a splash of red wine vinegar. Cook for about three minutes, until the alcohol in the wine is evaporated and flavors have combined.

Add your cans of tomato sauce. Let the entire thing simmer for two to three hours. Salt juduciously after simmering.

Step two: make the fish stock

While the tomato sauce is simmering, make your fish stock according to sneff's wonderful recipe. Yay, sneff!

Step three: putting it all together

The following ingredients are merely suggestions. Use some or all of them, depending on what's fresh and what you really like. Remember that you can mess around all you want with the type and amount of seafood you choose. Make sure to add a good balance of shellfish and firm-fleshed white fish, and the rest is up to your imagination.

*Prepare each serving separately* in a heavy, deep skillet.

You could try three or more of the following per serving:

In a large, heavy-bottomed skillet, combine the following per each serving:

  • ladle of tomato sauce
  • ladle of fish stock
  • handful of seafood, except for squid and/or abalone
  • good-sized splash of white wine

Simmer together for about five minutes per serving, or until mussels and/or clams open up and the crab that you hopefully included blushes furiously. Toss any stubborn mussels or clams that refuse to open.

Remove from heat, then add your calamari rings and/or abalone, if you decided to use them. Stir squid and abalone into the soup; the residual heat will cook the delicate meat until it is just tender. Serve with hunks of crusty bread and some tabasco sauce on the side for those who like extra spice.

Again, this is an expensive meal, meant for good friends or family on special occasions. Drink wine, enjoy your company, and prepare to be adored.

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