Cooking up a fine kettle of fish

By on September 21, 2012

As the summer season winds down, the Hawthornes begin stocking their freezer with shrimp for the winter. As fall approaches, the shrimp are getting larger and more consistently-sized.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been buying 5 to 7 pound batches of heads-on brown-tail shrimp. We’re waiting for the green-tails which come later in the shrimping season. And there’s always the possibility that a hurricane could visit, which would more than likely end any more shrimping for this season.

It is said the green-tails have a sweeter, more subtle flavor, but I’d have to do a side-by-side taste test to tell. One interesting factoid I learned was that brown-tails are harvested near the surface and are most active at night in open waters. Green-tails prefer the soft, muddy bottoms of brackish marshes. Always talk to your butchers and fishmongers. You can learn a lot.

While stocking up on shrimp at Billy’s Seafood, I came up with the idea for this month’s column — Cioppino. Cioppino is simply a fish stew, but it comes with an interesting history.

Cioppino is one of those “recipes” perceived as being “invented,” and hence traceable to an exact place, people, and time. Most food historians generally agree that cioppino originated in the San Francisco area by Italian and Portuguese immigrants. However, truth is, the story of cioppino began with ancient Mediterranean fishermen who concocted the first fish soups and stews.

Basically, all seafaring cultures came up with recipes resulting from local ingredients and the catch of the day. Cioppino is no exception. It belongs to the same tradition as chowder and bouillabaisse. These fish stews and chowders were likely developed on the fishing boats themselves, before there was refrigeration. The fishermen had to make do with what vegetables and canned products they had, along with fresh seafood.

Though the name and the dish, “cioppino,” were both popularized in San Francisco in the mid- to late-1800s by immigrants, the roots and name of this dish are from Italy. A colorful version of the etymology explains the possible origin of the name. After a hard day’s work, the fishermen would gather and throw different pieces of fish and shellfish into a communal pot for supper to make this fisherman’s stew. There was no set recipe. It was the daily catch. They would then call out to one another, in broken English, “Chip in,” or as they would exaggeratedly enunciate, “chip – eeen – o.

Perhaps a more credible explanation is that the name “cioppino” comes either from the Italian “ciuppin,” meaning “to chop” or “chopped,” which describes the process of making the stew by chopping up the leftovers of the day. Others say the name cioppino comes for a corruption of the word “il ciuppin” which means “little soup.” By the way, “ciuppin” is a word in the Ligurian dialect of the port city of Genoa. Liguria, the coastal region of northwestern Italy, is also the origin of pesto. So, to Ligurians everywhere, I thank you whole-heartedly for pesto and cioppino!

That said, let’s make a fine kettle of fish. A cioppino comes about from the various ethnic tastes of its inventors and the largesse of the ocean. Depending upon what the ocean offers, cioppino is a happily versatile dish. Basically, it’s a stew based on whatever yield the ocean provides and comprised of tomatoes, onion, and garlic. Seasonings vary from bay leaves and thyme to sage or even saffron. Clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops, calamari, and different white fish can all be used. Red wine occasionally replaces white wine, although I prefer white in this. It’s all a matter of preference and availability.

Rosie’s Cioppino

¼ cup oil
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
2-3 flat filets of anchovies, rinsed and drained
3 fresh bay leaves or 1 dried bay leaf
6-8 cloves garlic
1 onion, chopped
2 celery ribs, chopped
2-3 cups dry white wine
As always, when cooking with wine, use a wine you would actually drink.
1 14-ounce can chicken broth
1 32-ounce can crushed tomatoes
6 sprigs variegated lemon thyme, stems removed
4 sprigs fresh thyme, stems removed
1 handful fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
½ pound shrimp
1 dozen clams
20 mussels
½ pound white fish – We used tilefish, but you could use cod, mahi mahi, grouper, haddock, bass, halibut, or any relatively firm white fish – not flounder.
If you wanted to add in some scallops, you can’t go wrong.
A loaf of fresh, crusty sourdough bread.

In a large pot over moderate heat, pour in the oil and heat. Add in anchovies and red pepper flakes, stirring with a wooden spoon, letting the anchovies dissolve into the oil. The anchovies give it a slightly nutty flavor, not fishy at all, so don’t balk at using anchovies. The anchovies add natural salt, and the pepper flakes infuse the oil providing heat. Add in garlic and bay leaves, stirring constantly. Add in chopped celery and onion and sauté veggies for a few minutes until the onion becomes translucent. Add wine to the pot, cooking and stirring for a few minutes. Add in chicken stock, crushed tomatoes, thymes, and parsley. Bring sauce to a bubble and then reduce to medium low.

Add white fish and barely simmer for 5 minutes. Do not stir the pot after adding the fish or you will break it up. Merely give the pot a shake every now and then. Add shrimp, scallops, mussels, and clams. Cover pot. Cook about 10 minutes, giving the pot a few good shakes.
Discard any clams or mussels that did not open. Taste test. Season with freshly ground salt and pepper if needed. I always like a little extra pepper, but I didn’t add any salt. Remember, the anchovies already gave it some salt, plus you are cooking food from the briny sea.

Ladle into bowls and serve with a loaf of wonderful artisan bread. The bread is essential for mopping up every last bit of oceany goodness. If you’d like to make your own bread, I have recipes and step-by-step instructions on making filone and baguettes, both rustic, earthy, and complexly-flavored loaves, perfect for dunking, mopping, and sopping.

As always, please visit with Rosie at Kitchens Are Monkey Business. For any culinary questions, feel free to e-mail me at




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