Times Food Editor Russ Parsons: 'Let the great cioppino debate begin!'
I said at the start of this California Cook column that I've never written about cioppino without getting in an argument, and I wasn't disappointed. Already there have been lots of interesting comments from readers.
First, there was a bit of confusion from some folks about cooking time. It's important to remember that the sauce should be cooked for a long time (well, 45 minutes to an hour), but that the fish should be simmered only long enough to cook it through. Once again: Layer the fish, starting with meaty, then flaky, then shellfish, pour the cooked sauce over and then bring to a simmer until the clams and mussels open.
Now, on to the debate!
Howard rose to my crab bait (I'm not sold on including them):
You wanted a fight, you got it. If it doesn't have Dungeness crab, it ain't cioppino. PERIOD!
I have a recipe from 1941 from Sunet Magazine and it recommends one or TWO Dungeness crabs in a six servings recipe. I throw in flaky fish pieces very early in the cooking. The fish falls apart and helps give a nice flavor to the sauce. I also find that some extra clam broth really improves the cioppino. I cook the stew one day and let it sit in the fridge overnight to let the flavors blend together. Heaven. Best thing in the world besides riding on a cable car to the Barbary Coast.
Robert writes from the Pacific Northwest:
Here in PNW, we do variations, but while fish chunks may take 20 minutes (depending UPON how HIGH/low the heat) LARGE clams 6-8 minutes small Manila clams takes only 3-4(rubbery if LONGER) and prawns/dungeness about 5-8 minutes = OVERCOOKING seafood should be a crime. Ever taste those GROSSLY overcooked chickens that have been sitting under 'warming' lights?
Kris has a great suggestion: She likes cioppino so much she makes the soup base in big batches during the summer with fresh tomatoes and then cans it so she has it through the winter.
Mark writes in with his technique for what sounds like a French-inspired cioppino:
My iterations tend towards white wine, chopped tomatoes versus a sauce, broth both the home made seafood and touch of chicken broth. One more great option is a quick flambe with cognac after sauteing the scallops, shrimp and lobster, etc! Wow!! It imparts a wonderful flavor and enhances the richness of the seafood. My spice variations include little fresh tarragon, basil, maybe a shallot or two.
Along somewhat the same lines, Ellen suggests adding saffron to the soup. For me, that would be perilously close to bouillabaisse, not that that would necessarily be a bad thing!
And finally, JoAnne writes in with the most interesting serving suggestion I've ever heard:
My husband was the last of a long line of Italian chefs, although not a professional, who made cioppino. he even won First Place at the Fisherman's Fiesta in San Pedro in 1986 and I think was even prouder of that accomplishment than siring two sons! We always thought it was best to eat cioppino wearing a terry cloth bathrobe with nothing underneath so the sauce could just run down your arms and not on the floor! But they would never, never put green peppers in their cioppino!
-- Russ Parsons
Photo: Spencer Weiner