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Cioppino, the San Francisco treat

        My mother adored Cioppino, the fish stew with its roots in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco dating back to before the earthquake.  If you knew my mother, or for that matter, read this blog, you know that cooking was not Mother’s thing.  But if it were an easy recipe, one requiring as little time and attention as possible, and one that could reasonably be cooked in as few steps as possible, my Mother would latch onto it with an almost religious fervor.  So it was with Cioppino.  There is very little opportunity to make a bad Cioppino because it is probably the most flexible fish stew on the planet.  And it packs a wonderful punch of flavor in every bite.  The Cioppino I am sharing with you today tasted of the sea itself.  And then there was the richness of the tomatoes, the anise flavor of the fennel, and the bite-sized pieces of seafood brightened with a dash of fresh lemon juice.  Mother was right.  It’s hard to beat a great Cioppino. 

Essential to any great Cioppino is a great loaf of crusty bread
      I decided to make this dish now because the holidays were so full of meat that I really wanted a change.  I try to put seafood on the table once a week.  While it barely makes it under the wire as a ‘meatless meal’, it is healthy and almost completely fat-free save for a couple of tablespoons of Olive Oil.   And it is amazingly adaptable.  Most recipes do call for crab and some for squid, mussels and shrimp.  But as long as you choose some firm fish and add some shellfish, your Cioppino will almost surely pass muster with a native San Franciscan.  The one other ingredient that you must serve with it is a great loaf of crusty bread to sop up the juices.  I chose a wonderful Ciabatta loaf but you can use a baguette or a sourdough loaf if you want to stick to a complete San Francisco menu.
        The original Cioppino is said to have appeared in the late 1800s.  It was initially cooked aboard the fishing boats while they were at sea and its name is derived from the Genovese dialect’s word for chopped or to chop, “Cuippin”.  Later, it came ashore and at its eponymously named restaurant, Cioppino’s, a tale was spread that in heavily accented Italian, the cooks on the wharf asked the fisherman to ‘chip in’ some of their catch for the communal soup pot.  What’s really nice about this folklore is that it basically allows you to use whatever fish you want.  There’s none of that business of a bouillabaisse not being the genuine article without ‘rouget’ or some other impossible-to-find fish. The only ingredient that absolutely must be included is, in fact, the tomato which flavors its broth.
Three or four seafoods make one great Cioppino
We used Sea Scallops, Monkfish and Little Necks
        Strangely, I don’t remember my Mother’s Cioppino containing any shellfish at all.  But we lived well inland most of the year and as such didn’t have access to the wealth of clams, cockles, and mussels that we have here in New York.  I kept my recipe down to three kinds of fish – monkfish, little neck clams, and sea scallops.  Please feel free to add shrimp to this dish for a fourth component.   Here’s the recipe.  It serves 4 but I halved it for just the two of us and the whole thing start to finish takes an hour and fifteen minutes, forty-five of which are spent just watching the broth simmer.  No wonder my Mother couldn’t make it often enough.

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