Thursday, December 15, 2011

Cheater's Cioppino

This is not real cioppino. But it is pretty darn close, and pretty darn good.

Cioppino is a tomato-based seafood stew invented in San Francisco more than a century ago. It can contain clams, mussels, shrimp, white fish, and any other of the day's catch. And crab. Though it doesn't have to by definition, I am here proclaiming that it should always have crab. And I mean ALWAYS. Crab is sort of the point. And guess what - it's Dungeness crab season here in Northern California! 'Tis the season, indeed.

I grew up eating this Italian-American soup homemade by my mom from a recipe she procured on Fisherman's Wharf back in the '70s. From stove to table, it is an EXPERIENCE. You make a sauce from scratch in which you boil crab and a variety of other crustaceans and mollusks still in the shell. Meanwhile, cover the table in newsprint, fill it with crusty sourdough bread, giant bowls, soup spoons, crab crackers, tiny fish forks, and rolls of paper towels. Tie dishtowels around your neck, throw another in your lap, and you are ready for a feast. Crack, peel, slurp, and repeat, juices dripping off your elbows all the while. Just toss the shells right into the center to be folded up and tossed out with the stained paper. The kitchen (and your hands) smell like seafood for days. It is truly incredible.

But this ordeal is just not feasible as a regular meal. Is there a way to enjoy cioppino without it becoming a whole day event, or involving a trip to the Wharf? (FYI, we love the cioppino at Alioto's - just in case you are making that trip.) Could I create a facsimile easy and quick enough for a weeknight without losing the classic flavor?

Why yes, yes I could. As you know, I've been using V8 a lot as a soup base. I employed that method again for a rich, flavorful, and nutritious base right out of the bottle. I added the same vegetables and aromatics used in the traditional version, but included much more than the usual skimpy amounts. I knew a lot of delicious seafood flavor would be lost by not stewing shells and fish in the broth. I reclaimed some of this flavor by adding clam juice. Finally, I used fresh crab and shrimp meat and canned clams for the seafood - no messing with shells. What came out was a supremely flavorful dish that tasted a lot like the cioppino I grew up with. Plus, with about 300 calories, three servings of vegetables, and tons of protein in every bowl, there's plenty of nutrition and zero guilt. Sure, it doesn't taste exactly like the original, and the whole spectacle of in-the-shell seafood is a lot of fun on the right night, but I have made this dish easy and fast for anytime.

Cheater's Cioppino

I highly recommend using Snow's brand clam products. I eat a lot of clams and this is my favorite brand when I go canned instead of fresh. Serves 3.

1 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 yellow onion, chopped
1/2 green bell pepper, seeds and white parts removed, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, pressed
1 can diced tomatoes
2 cups V8 vegetable juice
1 8oz bottle Snow's clam juice
2 6.5oz cans Snow's chopped clams, juices drained and reserved (should be about 1 cup juices)
1/2lb fresh crab meat, preferably Dungeness
1/4lb fresh cooked bay shrimp
2 Tbsp parsley, chopped

In a large pot, heat oil over medium high. Add onion, pepper, and celery. Sautee for a few minutes until onion is translucent and soft. Add garlic and sautee another 30 seconds or so, until aromatic. Stir in tomatoes, V8, bottled clam juice, and reserved juice from canned clams. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat. Simmer uncovered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in shrimp, clams, and parsley. Finally, gently fold in crab - show care not to break up lumps of meat too much. Simmer for another 5 minutes, just until seafood is hot. Serve hot with crusty sourdough or baguette, if desired.

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