Seafood stews and soups are everyday eating all over Italy. And also special-occasion eating.
Western Sicily is known for its fish stew with couscous. Venice’s contributions include an inky cuttlefish stew. Cacciucco, a seafood soup from the Tuscan coast, is seasoned abundantly with garlic and hot pepper. It’s supposed to be made with five kinds of seafood, one for each “c” in the name.
Cioppino is the name given–by Italian immigrants, presumably–to San Francisco’s version of seafood stew, meant to be eaten with plenty of sourdough bread. It abounds in fish and frutti di mare (“fruits of the sea)–fish, squid, shrimp, mussels or clams.
My friend Chris Sherman makes a mean cioppino, teeming with potatoes and beans as well as seafood. A restaurant critic who lives in Tampa, he gives his fish stew a Florida twist by incorporating tangerine zest.
I love Chris’s cioppino but, as cooks are prone to do, I’ve gradually modified his recipe in so many ways he might not recognize it.
What you’re getting here is my favorite seafood stew, plus ideas for tweaks that will make it your own.
- 1 to 2 pounds mussels or small clams
- Sea salt or kosher salt
- 1¼ pounds firm white fish
- ¾ pound squid bodies and tentacles
- ¾ pound small shrimp*
- 3 medium red-skinned potatoes
- 1 small onion
- ½ fennel bulb or 1 large stalk celery
- 3 garlic cloves
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 2 bay leaves
- ¼ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes or to taste
- 2 cups canned plum tomatoes with puree*
- 2 cups white beans or chickpeas*
- 1 cup white or red wine
- Chopped Italian parsley or basil leaves and stems
Partly fill a large bowl with water and stir in 2 tablespoons salt. Add mussels and more water if needed to cover. Let soak in refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours to purge sand (if mussels are the cultivated rope-raised kind, they may not need treatment).
Cut fish in thick 2-inch pieces. Cut squid bodies in rings; split tentacles into clumps with 2 or 3 tentacles. Peel shrimp.
Dice potatoes in 1-inch pieces. Dice fennel in ½-inch pieces (about 1½ cups). Chop onion. Finely chop garlic.
Heat ¼ cup olive oil over medium heat in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Saute onion until golden. Stir in fennel, garlic, 2 teaspoons salt, bay leaves and red pepper flakes. Cook until vegetables are softened but not browned.
Add tomatoes, breaking them up with a wooden spoon (alternatively, puree tomatoes with their puree in a blender). Simmer for 10 minutes or so. Add potatoes and enough water to barely cover. Continue to cook, with lid ajar, until tender.
Add fish and squid. Add more water to barely cover. Simmer until just cooked, about 10 minutes. (Heat can be turned off at this point for up to an hour.)
Meanwhile, drain mussels, place in a large, deep skillet and add wine. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook until mussels open (discard any that do not).
Add mussels and cooking liquid to saucepan with stew if there’s room; if not, combine liquid with stew and leave mussels in skillet.
Stir shrimp into stew. Cook for about 5 minutes, until just cooked.
Taste broth and add more salt and red pepper flakes if needed.
To serve: Spoon stew into broad, shallow bowls. Top each serving with several mussels and sprinkle with parsley.
• Choose good-quality canned Italian tomatoes such as San Marzano. For a thicker stew base, add a couple tablespoons of tomato paste to the stew base. If fresh tomatoes are in season, you could substitute several for canned tomatoes; peel, seed, dice fresh tomatoes before adding to the stew.
• Fresh shrimp are great, but as a time saver, I sometimes use individually frozen wild shrimp. Unless thawed first, they need a little extra cooking.
• If using canned beans, drain and rinse them before adding. Beans cooked from scratch are even better; you can add some of their cooking liquid to the stew base.
• The easy path to a richer-tasting broth is to add a small bottle of clam juice to the stew base. A more labor-intensive but more flavorful route is to make broth from heads and frames of mild-tasting fish; strain and substitute for water called for in recipe.
*For a bright finish, stir in zest of 1 tangerine or orange just before serving.