Thanksgiving (the Canadian edition) will have come and gone by the time this gets posted but, this year, I decided to forego the rack of lamb we usually have and make a Cioppino. For those unfamiliar with the dish, this is an Italian-American seafood stew (or soup, if you prefer) created in San Franciso in the 1800’s. It combines shellfish and sometimes (but not always) fish in a rich broth containing wine and tomatoes. Regular readers of my blog may recall the review I did of the Fish Market Restaurant in Ottawa where I had a dish that they called Bouillabaisse which, while very good, was really much more of a Cioppino. I have had a hankering to cook the dish ever since then and (some months later) I finally managed to get around to it…
The is the selection of shellfish I decided on for the two of us. As you can see, we are going to have lobster tails and claws (the rest of the lobsters were used to make the seafood stock I will be using), shrimp, mussels, clams and some big-ass scallops I sliced into sections. Crab, is a little more common than lobster, but I thought this would be a nice substitution even though I have some nice crab in the freezer. I decided against fish as I didn’t see much I liked at the store.
For the actual soup base, our ingredients are as follows:
- 3 cups of shellfish stock;
- 1 ½ cups of canned diced tomatoes ;
- 1 cup of white wine;
- 2 tbsp. Butter;
- 1 small onion, finely chopped;
- 2 cloves Garlic;
- Fresh Parsley (you’ll need about a half-cup chopped);
- Few sprigs fresh Basil;
- Salt and Pepper.
Some variations of Cioppino have a ‘soup’ that is almost like a tomato sauce (and oregano, thyme and even chili are used as seasonings), but I prefer a very simply seasoned base that is primarily a seafood stock that is merely enhanced with tomato. I made the stock well ahead of time (see yesterday’s post) If you like, you can do as many others do and just substitute bottled clam juice, but it won’t be as good and I think that that particular measure may not work well with the method I am adopting for this experiment…
Supposedly, Cioppino was a creation of Italian and Portuguese fisherman in 19th Century who used to cook up their daily catch in a tomato based broth. Given the range of shellfish employed, I think that the modern dish has strayed far from the roots, or else the story is a bit of a romantic fiction, but, in any event, the idea is that the fish and shell fish are ‘cooked’ in the broth. Since I am mostly using cooked shellfish (fresh is really hard to come by here), and since we already have a rich seafood stock for the base, I am going to depart from the usual method a little. As you will see, we’ll still have lots of lovely flavor and have the added benefit of making the ‘plating’ and service of the dish a lot easier…
First, melt your butter in a medium hot saucepan and then add the onion. Sauté until the onion is translucent (do not brown it at all) and then add the garlic. As soon as this releases its aroma, add the scallop and the shrimp. Allow these to cook very briefly until the scallops are opaque and the shrimp has just turned pink. Do not overdo this but, rather, as soon as the they are all just barely cooked through, remove them to a bowl for later.
Now, add the wine to the saucepan and, as soon as the alcohol has burned off (within a minute or so) add the seafood stock and the tomatoes. Bring this to a low boil and then turn down to a simmer. You need to cook this for long enough that the tomatoes break down a little and the flavors blend. About an hour or so should suffice, and then you can add a pinch of salt and a grind of pepper (to taste, basically) and keep the pot on low heat until ready to use.
If you want to make your Cioppino the most traditional way by cooking the seafood in the soup base then please feel free. However, this will limit you to either serving right from the pot (just as tasty but not very attractive), or else trying to fish the shellfish out later so as to plate them attractively. To avoid this messy and annoying step, you can follow along with this process:
First, chop your herbs, reserving a few pretty sprigs of the basil for garnish, and then layer your shellfish in a suitable crockpot or other dish, sprinkling parsley and basil as you go. Save some of the parsley for final service and then sprinkle a few tablespoons each of water and wine over everything (to get some steam action going) and then cover the pot before putting it into the oven.
After about fifteen or twenty minutes, once the shellfish is just heated through, arrange the various items attractively in heated serving dishes. Your heating dish will contain some lovely flavored liquid at the bottom so stir this into your soup base and then ladle it over the shellfish. Garnish with the remaining parsley and basil sprigs and serve immediately.
Well…. I have to say that, while this dish was really tasty, I was disappointed with the final appearance. Mostly, I had bowls that were a bit too large for presentation and the (admittedly inadequate) volume of soup sort of disappeared under the solids leaving an unattractive pile… My pictures are pretty accurate (unfortunately) and, I have to say, this experiment just didn’t look that good to me…
That being said, I will blow my own horn and say that the broth was about the best I have ever created. The mussels and clams were great, and the scallops and shrimp were also good (if not especially remarkable) but the lobster was a bit disappointing. If I make this dish again, I will probably use fresh lobster, rather than frozen, and cook it right in the broth just before serving.
If you are moved to try this dish (the way I cooked it, that is), I would also recommend that you cut back on the parsley also. Usually, we just get the curly variety, which is fine for scattering liberally, but the flat leaf Italian sort I used this time is a bit stronger and was too assertive for this dish. Other than that, though, this was actually a pretty good meal despite the unfortunate appearance…