When it comes to enjoying Italian food, everybody’s Italian — or so I’ve heard. Cioppino, a tomato-wine based seafood soup, was – according to various websites – made famous by Italian immigrants in San Francisco over 150 years ago, and served Christmas Eve. There are many reasons I’ve incorporated this divine concoction into my own holiday traditions, as well.
First, It’s a cinch to prepare, and the broth may be made up to 48 hours in advance. It also brings an element of finger-licking, fun-loving festivity to the holiday table. Serving Cioppino suggests a southern Italian Christmas Eve tradition: The Feast of the Seven Fishes. The long tradition of eating seafood on Christmas eve dates from the medieval Roman Catholic Church.
According to Wikipedia, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is believed to have originated in southern Italy. Today, it is an Italian-American feast typically consisting of seven or more different seafood dishes, most notably salted cod fish.
Personally, I’ll adopt any tradition that incorporates many types of seafood in one sitting. This recipe is my short-cut to embracing the Feast of the Seven Fishes without going to all the work of creating seven unique recipes.
Cioppino is similar to another one of my favorite tomato-based seafood soups: the classic French Bouillaibaisse. The main difference I’ve noticed when comparing the two is Bouillaibaisse is distinguished by saffron. As in my Bouillaibaisse recipe, I adore the heady flavor of fresh fennel and fennel seeds in the tomato and wine brew.
Dungeness crab, a West Coast crustacean, is a traditional shell fish used in Cioppino — the cold waters in the San Francisco Bay area are stocked with this delectable. It’s delicious in the soup, but its addition is not mandatory. If you can find it, use it; have your fishmonger cut it into parts for you and add it (shells included) when you’d add the clams.
Mike Monahan, owner of Monahan’s Seafood Market in Kerrytown, tells me Dungeness crab availabilty for Michiganders is sketchy; it comes from so far away, and pre-cooked crab can lose a lot of flavor. The spirit of Cioppino is not one specific recipe but is using the freshest seafood possible in your “neck of the woods.”
Mike says the best choice for us would be purchasing fish from the East Coast, such as striped bass or grouper. He said little neck clams can also be substituted for the more traditional Manila clams in the recipe, as well. Pieces of king crab meat, grouper, monk fish, snapper or even less pricey pollock and tilapia contribute to a wonderful stew.
Using a combination of firm flesh and soft-fleshed fish worked well for me. I enjoyed the bite and meaty flavor of the halibut, and the cod broke into small pieces permeating the broth.
The trick is knowing when to add each seafood. Add the fish and shellfish in stages according to how long each one needs to cook. The recipe direction “until just barely cooked through” is important here, because the fish will continue to cook as it sits in the warm soup.
For me, sourdough bread is an essential component to the meal; serving a simple green salad would be an optional side dish.