The very first time I encountered cioppino was at a high-end restaurant — the sort of place that was located on the top floor of a very tall building and frequented by people in evening wear headed to the opera — and it had soaring menu prices to match. Despite the dent left in my pocketbook, it became an instant addiction. I have since ordered it at several different restaurants with varying levels of affordability and quality, but it has never disappointed my seafood cravings. Like most people in recent times, however, we’ve started cutting back on eating out in an attempt to assuage our much put-upon bank accounts. A good seafood stew became one of the top things on my list of “learn-to-make” items at that point.
Considering that the original cioppino was a working man’s meal (created around the 1800s by the Italian fishermen of San Francisco), it’s suitable that it should be brought back up-to-date as a hearty-but-affordable dish for home cooking. With this in mind, I started putting together a cioppino with more realistic ingredients for the busy and budget-minded, who might not be within convenient range of a local fishmonger. I must say it was very tasty.
I took Allrecipes’ Southern California Cioppino as my base, with quite a few tweaks. There were many other more traditional recipes available, but being here in SoCal, it felt rather appropriate to start with a tribute to our local flavors. The consistently high reviews it got on the site didn’t hurt either.
The dry ingredients lineup. A very aromatic blend, as you can see. I substituted some of the dried stuff for their fresh counterparts to cut back on preparation time.
The wet ingredients lineup.
The canned ingredients, which take the place of a lot of the fresh ingredients that one would use if they were more readily available, in season, and/or affordable. These are all canned shellfish, so also have the added advantage of being pure meat instead of whole-in-shell, which ends up taking a lot less room in the pot and a lot less work to eat when served. Definitely worth it when you’re having one of your lazy days and don’t feel like dealing with a big mess of shells after you’ve had dinner. Using canned also let me incorporate a larger percentage of seafood in more different varieties than I otherwise would be able to.
The frozen lineup, once again chosen for convenience. I splurged a little on these because they would be the most obvious and chunky elements of the stew. Plus, we have a Trader Joe’s nearby that carries a good variety of interesting frozen seafoods.
Using a large stock pot (this recipe makes a LOT of stew), I started with 1/4 cup of olive oil. I then tossed in 6 tablespoons of dried minced onion and 1/2 cup of water, which equals 1 cup of minced fresh onion without the mess and tears. By heating these three up together, I hydrated the dried onion faster and kept the oil from crackling and spitting as much as it would if I’d added the water into already-heated oil. I could probably have soaked the onion in water beforehand, but I was doing this on a tight schedule.
4 chopped carrots and 4 chopped stalks of celery went in next.
Followed immediately by 4 peeled and cubed red potatoes and 1 tablespoon of garlic powder. I went for the powder over the minced garlic because I wanted the garlic taste without the random bits in the stew. Also, it was a lot less messy to deal with than fresh garlic. The vegetables were sauteed in the oil and juices for about 10 minutes, until they started to get tender.
The next step was to basically dump in all the wet ingredients, herbs and spices. 1 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes, 2 cups of tomato juice, 2 8-ounce jars of clam juice, and 1/2 a cup of sweet cooking sake went in. The original recipe used white wine, but I usually have sake around and it makes a virtually indistinguishable substitute. I tossed in 2 tablespoons of dried parsley flakes and 2 tablespoons of dried cilantro instead of their fresh equivalents, using perhaps a bit more than I would have if they had been fresh. Both have such a nice, fresh smell that it’s hard to overdo them. 2 teaspoons of dried basil, 1.5 teaspoons of dried oregano, and 1 tablespoon dried thyme followed. I added 1 full teaspoon of California chili powder, which is a bit milder than normal chili powder, and 1/8 teaspoon of cayenne pepper. 1 teaspoon each of salt and ground black pepper.
The heat was reduced and this mixture left to simmer for 1.5 hours as our guild raided Naxxramas. About an hour in, I stopped by to stir the broth and have a quick taste. Sprinkled in a bit more salt, pepper, chili powder and a smattering of the Italian herbs. Although I’m known as something of a spicy food wimp, there’s lots of room to wiggle with the flavoring of this stew.
At about an hour into the simmering, I added the canned seafood comprised of 2 small tins of white crab meat, 1 small tin of chopped clams, 1 large can of whole oysters and 1 large can of boiled baby clams. I tossed all of these in with whatever juices were present in the cans, which wasn’t very much overall but added to the seafood flavor. I prefer to add these canned products in earlier than the fresh stuff to give them more of a chance to soak up the broth and mingle together with the vegetables. At the 1.5 hour simmer mark, in went a bag of defrosted Argentine red shrimp (sweeter and more lobster-like than normal farmed shrimp), two cubed fillets of mahi mahi, and a bag of defrosted bay scallops. Oh, and a few normal shrimp that I had leftover from a previous night’s dish. This was left to simmer for another half an hour.
Served! You can see how chunky yet hands-free it turned out, which is just the way we like it.
Since I made a pot big enough to serve a large dinner party, I ended up freezing 4 bags worth of the stuff for future meals. I’m a big fan of frozen soup — it’s so easy to heat up again and takes up minimal room in the freezer.
Taste analysis: While using fresh, intact seafood would have probably made for a fancier-looking stew, and might have added a different flavor on the whole, I was very happy with the results of my canned/frozen version. This is the second time I’ve made it this way and my guests are always impressed with the restaurant-quality of it. It’s warm, filling, mildly spicy and packed to the brim with seafoody goodness. I actually prefer it to some the other stews I’ve paid for, since a lot of restaurants seem to feel the need to go overboard with the hot spices. I like that herbs are given more emphasis in this recipe, giving your mouth a chance to deal with the other elements without being burned silly.
Convenience analysis: I don’t think I’ll ever chop another onion or garlic clove again if I can help it. While the texture of the fresh stuff might matter in some recipes, I don’t think it makes as much of a difference in something like this, where everything is stewed together for so long that it is falling apart anyway. Similarly, the canned and frozen seafoods were much easier to find at my local markets and could be stored for a much longer time than the fresh versions, giving me the option of stocking them for future recipes without fearing they’ll go off. Since the closest place with fresh seafood I trust is about a half hour drive, it also cuts back on gas and time.
Financial analysis: Obviously, if gas and time weren’t an issue already, the price of typical fresh seafood would be. We live in suburbia. As close as we might be to the beach, we’re still paying more than we would be if there was a local fish stall to buy from. By using what I did and splurging only on specific items, I make it possible to afford this dish more than one or twice a year. Given that a whole pot is about 8-10 servings’ worth, each serving has more variety and content than would be found in a restaurant’s bowl, and a typical bowl goes for anywhere from $20-40 at said restaurants? I see no wrong here at all.