AVILA BEACH, CALIF. -- It seems like a scene from a Mediterranean vacation, although only four hours north of Los Angeles one can feast on fabulous seafood in a rich garlic-flavored broth while watching small fishing boats nod gently in the blue sea.
The dish is cioppino -- the most famous seafood specialty in California -- and the restaurant is the Olde Port Inn, on the pier of this lovely fishing town.
Even when served far from such romantic surroundings, cioppino is always impressive. This lavish entree of bright red crab claws rising dramatically from a steaming bowl of tomato-laden broth never fails to delight.
Yet this elegant seafood stew, the pride of many fine California restaurants, had modest beginnings. Cioppino is thought to have appeared in San Francisco early in this century and started as a simple way for fishermen to make use of their catch, especially the local rockfish and Dungeness crab. It is derived from an Italian fish soup called ciuppin, from the province of Liguria, an important fishing area on the Italian Riviera. Cookbooks from Italy describe ciuppin as a rustic relative of bouillabaisse but without the additions of saffron, Provencal herbs or Pernod.
The most important departure of the American dish from the Italian one is the emphasis on shellfish. While ciuppin contains mainly fish, in cioppino, shellfish stars. Chefs sometimes disagree as to whether cioppino was meant to be a soup or a stew, but with the generous amount of seafood and often thick sauce, most versions support the stew side of the story.
Today cioppino has evolved considerably from its origins. Today, almost any shellfish might be featured, from squid to large prawns to lobster. An innovative cioppino served by the Olde Port Inn even included a last-minute addition of deep-fried soft-shell crabs. Fish plays a minor role in restaurant versions, but most chefs do include some. They favor relatively firm fish such as swordfish, tuna or monkfish, as these hold their shape during cooking.
In recent years cioppino has gained new flavorings currently in vogue in California. Porcini mushrooms, along with generous amounts of thyme, basil, oregano and rosemary, give the cioppino of chef Kelly Mullarney, of Ocean Avenue Seafood in Santa Monica, a pleasing, fresh aroma. Robert Reash Jr., the chef of John Dominis restaurant in Newport Beach, takes a south-of-the-border direction by seasoning his cioppino with jalapenåo peppers and cilantro.
For the home cook, cioppino is perfect for entertaining not only for its taste and presentation, but also because it is one of the few seafood dishes that can in large part be made ahead. In fact, to blend flavors, the cioppino base -- consisting of wine, fish stock, herbs, tomatoes and aromatic vegetables -- is best prepared in advance. The fish and shellfish -- a simple assortment, as in the original Italian ciuppin; or a selection of lobster, crab, jumbo shrimp, mussels, scallops or small clams -- are cooked briefly a short time before serving.
Little needs to be added to cioppino to form a complete menu, other than a green salad, crusty sourdough or Italian bread and a simple dessert. And always serve it in a bowl or other deep dish.
FISH STOCK (Makes 8 cups)
Use this fish stock (or the simple version) for all of the cioppino recipes here, or use any other fish stock you might have in your freezer from another recipe. You can also use frozen fish stock, diluted according to package instructions. Clam juice could be used but the taste of the final dishes will not be as good.
3 pounds fish bones, tails and heads of non-oily fish or 2 pounds fish pieces for chowder
2 tablespoons olive oil, vegetable oil or butter
2 medium onions, sliced
About 2 1/2 quarts water
10 parsley stems
2 fresh thyme sprigs or 1/2 teaspoon dried leaf thyme, crumbled
2 bay leaves
Remove any gills from fish. Rinse fish bones under cold running water 5 minutes; drain.
Heat oil or butter in heavy large saucepan or stock pot over low heat. Add onions and cook, stirring often, until soft but not brown, about 10 minutes. Add fish bones or fish pieces, enough water just to cover, parsley, thyme and bay leaves. Bring to boil, skimming surface occasionally. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered, skimming occasionally, for 20 minutes. Strain through fine sieve; do not press on solid ingredients. (Stock can be kept, covered, 1 day in refrigerator; or it can be frozen 2 months.)
Simple fish stock: Use only fish bones and water. Rinse bones well. Put them in a medium saucepan and barely cover with water. Bring to a boil, skimming foam. Simmer uncovered over medium-low heat 20 minutes. Strain stock, cool and refrigerate or freeze.
Per cup: 44 calories, .5 gm protein, 3 gm carbohydrates, 4 gm fat, .5 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 mg sodium.
CIUPPIN (Ligurian Fish Soup) (4 servings)
Some refer to this soup from the Italian Riviera as Ligurian bouillabaisse. In Italy it is prepared with assorted rockfish that are sold in the markets as "fish for soup," much as our fish markets often feature "fish for chowder." Some cooks add 3 or 4 rinsed chopped anchovies with the onion, and some recent versions, reflecting a French influence, include saffron. Serve the soup with best quality, firm, Italian country-style bread.
FOR THE TOMATO-WHITE WINE-GARLIC BASE:
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 medium onion, minced
1 celery stalk, minced
3 large garlic cloves, minced
5 tablespoons chopped parsley, preferably Italian
3/4 cup dry white wine, such as Italian or California chardonnay
1 pound ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped; or one 28-ounce can whole plum tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 3/4 to 2 cups fish stock
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger (optional)
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes (optional)
1 pound monkfish
1 pound sea bass, halibut, ling cod, scrod or cod fillets
1/4 to 1/2 pound medium shrimp (optional)
To make the tomato-white wine-garlic base, heat oil in enameled casserole or wide saucepan over medium heat. Add onion, celery, garlic and 4 tablespoons parsley and saute' lightly about 10 to 12 minutes or until onion is tender. Add wine and boil, uncovered, over high heat, stirring frequently, until nearly all the liquid has evaporated. Add tomatoes and boil 2 minutes. Add 1 cup stock, salt, pepper, ginger and hot pepper flakes and stir a few seconds. Bring to a boil. (If preparing ahead, remove from heat at this point and refrigerate or freeze.)
Carefully cut skin from monkfish, leaving white flesh. Cut fish in slices about 1 inch thick. Cut other fish in chunks. Peel shrimp, and devein if desired.
Reheat base to a simmer. Add monkfish and another 3/4 to 1 cup fish broth, or enough to nearly cover the fish. Bring to boil. Cook uncovered over medium heat, stirring often, 5 minutes. Add other fish and cook 2 minutes. If using shrimp, add them and cook 3 more minutes or until shrimp changes color and fish pieces become opaque. Taste and adjust seasoning. Sprinkle with remaining tablespoon parsley and serve hot.
Per serving: 566 calories, 52 gm protein, 15 gm carbohydrates, 31 gm fat, 5 gm saturated fat, 131 mg cholesterol, 212 mg sodium.
OLDE PORT INN CIOPPINO (8 servings)
The chef uses red wine, white wine or a combination of both for his cioppino. For white wine, he prefers sauvignon blanc, and for red wine, pinot noir.
FOR THE TOMATO-SAFFRON-LEEK BASE:
1/2 cup olive oil
2 large onions, cut in thin slices
6 leeks (1 1/2 pounds), ends trimmed, halved lengthwise, rinsed, and sliced 1/2 inch thick
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup chopped parsley
4 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon saffron threads
6 cups firm-ripe tomatoes, cut into 3/4-inch dice; or 2 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes
2 16-ounce cans tomato sauce
1 quart dry white or dry red wine, or 2 cups each
Salt, to taste
Liquid hot pepper sauce, to taste
2 dozen small clams, well scrubbed
2 dozen small mussels, well scrubbed, beards trimmed
1 to 1 1/2 pounds jumbo shrimp, shelled and deveined
1 1/2 pounds firm, light-flesh fish steaks, such as shark or swordfish, cut in 1 1/2-inch chunks
2 cooked crabs (about 4 pounds total), cleaned and cracked
To make the tomato-saffron-leek base, combine oil, onions, leeks, garlic, parsley, bay leaves, oregano, thyme, pepper and saffron in a 12- to 14-quart pan. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until onion is limp. Add tomatoes and their juice, tomato sauce and wine. Cover and boil gently until flavors are blended, about 45 minutes if using fresh tomatoes, or about 15 minutes if using canned. Add salt and hot pepper sauce to taste. (If preparing ahead, remove from heat at this point and refrigerate or freeze.)
Reheat base to a simmer. Discard bay leaves. Add clams, mussels, shrimp and fish chunks. Cover and simmer 10 minutes. Add crab and simmer, covered, just until crab is hot and clams and mussels open, about 10 minutes longer. Discard any clams or mussels that do not open. Serve cioppino in wide bowls.
Per serving: 617 calories, 47 gm protein, 38 gm carbohydrates, 24 gm fat, 4 gm saturated fat, 161 mg cholesterol, 1443 mg sodium.
OCEAN AVENUE SEAFOOD CIOPPINO (8 servings)
In contrast to other recipes that call for dried porcini mushrooms, for this cioppino there is no need to soak the mushrooms; they soften enough as they simmer with the other ingredients. At the restaurant, live crabs are cooked in the base, but we have specified cooked ones because they are easier to handle in the home kitchen. If tuna is not available, swordfish is suggested.
FOR THE PORCINI-GARLIC-RED WINE BASE:
1 cup virgin olive oil
16 large garlic cloves, minced
2 large yellow onions, sliced thin
1 large leek, sliced thin
1 large red bell pepper, sliced thin
1 large green bell pepper, sliced thin
36 ripe plum tomatoes, seeded and chopped
6 to 8 tablespoons tomato paste
1 bunch parsley, chopped
1 bunch fresh basil, shredded
2 tablespoons fresh oregano, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped
4 bay leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons dried hot red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon freshly ground black peppercorns
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
2 quarts fish stock
1 bottle dry red wine, such as pinot noir
Salt and pepper to taste
3 pounds large prawns or jumbo shrimp
2 pounds Manila clams or other small clams
4 cooked Dungeness crabs (2 to 3 pounds each) or other fairly large crabs
3 pounds fresh tuna
Chopped fresh basil and parsley for garnish
To prepare the porcini-garlic-red wine base, heat olive oil in a large pan, add garlic and saute' briefly. Add onion, leeks and peppers and cook until soft. Add tomatoes and cook about 3 minutes. Add tomato paste and cook, stirring, 3 minutes. Add herbs, spices, dried mushrooms and 1 quart fish stock. Cover and simmer 10 to 15 minutes. Add remaining fish stock and red wine. Bring to a boil. Simmer uncovered 15 to 20 minutes until slightly thickened. Season with salt and pepper. Discard bay leaves. (Base can be refrigerated or frozen at this time.)
Prepare prawns or shrimp by slitting shells from tail to head down the back. Do not remove the shells. Scrub clams. Remove hard shell from crabs; clean crabs, crack claws and cut bodies in pieces. Cut fish in 1-inch chunks.
Reheat base. Add shellfish and fish. Cover and cook 10 to 12 minutes or until clams open and shrimp and fish are just cooked through; to check, cut into a shrimp and a piece of fish -- they should have changed color inside. Taste for seasoning and add basil and parsley.
Per serving: 881 calories, 91 gm protein, 32 gm carbohydrates, 38 gm fat, 6 gm saturated fat, 366 mg cholesterol, 567 mg sodium.
JOHN DOMINIS CIOPPINO (6 servings)
For this cioppino, the tomatoes are added just before serving so they keep their fresh flavor.
FOR THE CILANTRO-WHITE WINE BASE:
3/4 cup olive oil
1/2 pound onions, sliced thin
1/2 pound leeks, sliced thin
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1/4 teaspoon finely chopped fresh jalapenåo pepper
1 tablespoon chopped fresh fennel
4 quarts fish stock
2 quarts bottled clam juice
1 cup dry white wine
1 sprig thyme, chopped fine
1/4 bunch cilantro, chopped fine
4 bay leaves
Pinch of saffron
1/2 pound scallops
1/2 pound lobster meat
18 clams, scrubbed
12 mussels, scrubbed
3/4 pound shrimp, in shell
3/4 pound king crab legs
1 pound sea bass fillet (or substitute scrod)
3 large vine-ripened tomatoes, peeled and chopped coarsely
Salt and pepper, to taste
To make the cilantro-white wine base, bring olive oil to a slow simmer in a heavy saucepan. Add onions, leeks, garlic, jalapenåo pepper and fennel and simmer until transparent and slightly brown at edges. In another large, wide saucepan combine fish stock, clam juice and wine. Cook over medium heat until about 1/3 of the liquid remains. Add this reduced liquid to onion mixture. Add thyme, cilantro, bay leaves and saffron and simmer 10 minutes. (Base can be refrigerated or frozen at this time.)
Bring soup base to a simmer. Add scallops, lobster meat, clams and mussels and simmer 5 minutes. Add shrimp, king crab and sea bass and simmer 4 to 6 minutes or until clams and mussels open and other seafood is tender. At serving time, stir in tomatoes and add salt and pepper to taste.
Per serving: 848 calories, 56 gm protein, 59 gm carbohydrates, 42 gm fat, 6 gm saturated fat, 141 mg cholesterol, 2138 mg sodium.
PINE AVENUE FISH HOUSE CIOPPINO (4 servings)
FOR THE ORANGE JUICE-RED WINE-GARLIC-BASE:
1/2 cup olive oil
Cloves of 1 head garlic, minced
3 ounces shallots, minced
1/2 pound onions, sliced
1/2 pound red bell peppers, sliced
1/2 pound green bell peppers, sliced
2 jalapenåo peppers, chopped
1 1/4 pounds tomatoes, diced
2 cups dry red wine
3/4 cup orange juice
2 quarts fish stock
1 cup marinara sauce
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1 bay leaf
1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup minced garlic
1 pound fish (tuna and halibut), cut in 1-inch chunks
16 small clams, scrubbed clean
16 mussels, scrubbed clean
8 large prawns
1/2 pound squid, cut in thin strips
To prepare the orange juice-red wine-garlic-marinara base, heat oil in a large pot. Add garlic and saute' until lightly browned. Add shallots, onions and peppers and saute' lightly. Add tomatoes, wine and orange juice and bring to a boil. Add remaining base ingredients. Simmer gently for 1 hour, skimming well. Discard bay leaf. (Base can be refrigerated or frozen at this time).
Heat oil in a large saucepan, add garlic and saute' 1 minute. Add soup base and bring to a simmer. Add fish and shellfish, cover and steam about 10 minutes or until clams and mussels are open and other seafood is cooked through. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Per serving: 852 calories, 56 gm protein, 41 gm carbohydrates, 45 gm fat, 7 gm saturated fat, 251 mg cholesterol, 731 mg sodium.
Faye Levy is a California freelance writer and cookbook author whose latest book is "Dinner Inspirations."