Chipping in

Hello, blog.  I’ve missed you.

The past few weeks have been…strange, to say the least.  My father was diagnosed with cancer, and suddenly our family had to learn a whole new vocabulary.

Tumor.  Malignant.  Carcinoma.  Radiation.  It’s amazing how a few singular words can suddenly taste so different rolling off your tongue.

Thankfully, the only words in our mouths right now are ones of relief and gratitude.  Dad is healing at warp-speed, and (fingers crossed) on the way to being certified tumor-free.  We’ve moved on from swarming and fussing and waiting with fingernails in our mouths, and settled back down somewhere near normal.  It’s been a wild ride.

Time for some comfort food.

When I was a kid, my parents split cooking duties.  Their kitchen philosophies were–and still are–very different.  My mom relied mostly on a stable of tried-and-true dinner favorites.  But my dad would get to the stove and turn into a mad scientist.  Sometimes it seemed like he would grab every bottle and box in the kitchen on the way to making a meal.  Especially when he made cioppino.

Cioppino is one of the truly classic San Francisco food experiences.  It was born in the 1800s, when Italian fisherman plied their trade out on the bay.  Legend has it that these  fishermen would save part of their catch each day and toss it into a communal stew pot of tomatoes, wine, and aromatics.  Everyone chipped in whatever their nets had given them that day.  Chip in.  Chip-inno.  Cioppino.

The beauty of cioppino–the thing that drew my father to it–is that there are no hard-and-fast rules.  Here in the Bay Area, tradition calls for a mishmash of shellfish in the shell–clams, mussels, scallops, and crab–plus calamari, shrimp, and the occasional smattering of fish.  But this is a dish that grew out of improvisation.  You can use any affordable, sustainable seafood you can get your hands on.  The day I made cioppino for my dad after his surgery, cod and sea scallops were the best the fish counter had to offer–so that’s what went into the pot.

Cioppino also willingly bends to suit individual tastes; my dad likes a fishier cioppino, while I tend to prefer an all-shellfish stew.  You can make it simple, with tomatoes, garlic and wine; you can make it complicated, with clam juice and 20 different herbs and even a compound butter to dab on top.  It’s all about what works for you, on this particular day, on this particular time, with these particular mouths to feed.

The key, though, regardless of what seafood you pick, is not to overcook it.  The stew base itself can simmer for hours if you let it–it’s amazing how happy tomatoes, wine, garlic and herbs are to just sit and bubble away patiently for you.  But fish needs only a few minutes to cook through, and shellfish even less.  As soon as clams and mussels relax and pop open, they’re ready.  Shrimp just need time to curl into themselves; squid take only a minute or two to ripple and plump.  Scallops are good to eat almost from the moment they hit the hot stew.  If you buy cooked crab legs, they need no time at all.

Treat the seafood gently, simmer the sauce thoroughly, and serve it warm in a big bowl.  Then you’ll have a meal that can chase away just about any chill–be it from a workday on a foggy wharf or a visitor’s hour in a hospital ward.

Cioppino (serves 6)

2-3 tbsp olive oil

1 large onion, diced

1 bell pepper, diced

5-6 cloves garlic, minced

1/8 tsp crushed red chili

1/2 tsp Old Bay seasoning

2 tbsp fresh or 2 tsp dried basil

2 tbsp fresh or 2 tsp parsley

1 tsp dried oregano

1 1/2 cups red wine

2 28-oz. cans whole peeled tomatoes

1 bay leaf

2 lb. seafood of your choice

Heat oil in a large (6-quart) pot over medium-high heat.  Saute onion and bell pepper for 5-10 minutes, or until the veggies are softened.  Add garlic, red chili, and Old Bay seasoning, and cook for a couple more minutes, stirring, until everything in the pot is fragrant.  Add wine, and cook about 10 minutes, then add tomatoes with their liquid.  Add bay leaf, dried oregano, dried basil (if using), and dried parsley (if using).

Bring the pot to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for about 1 hour.  Use a potato masher or wooden spoon to break up the tomatoes into chunks.  At this point, add your seafood to the pot:

  • Cut any fish into bite-size chunks.  Most firm-fleshed fish, from salmon to cod, will cook in about 5-10 minutes.
  • Clams and mussels in the shell will take between 5-10 minutes to open once they’re in the stew.  As they open, take them out of the pot so as not to overcook them; if they don’t open after 10 minutes, take them out and throw them away.  Return them to the pot when you’re ready to serve.
  • Shelled clams and mussels, as well as shrimp and scallops, will take 2-3 minutes to cook.  If you’re using big shrimp or scallops, cut them in half.
  • Calamari, cut into bite-size pieces, will take 2 minutes max.
  • Pre-cooked seafood, including crab, can go in at the last minute.

Once the seafood is all cooked, stir in the fresh basil and/or parsley (if using).  Ladle the stew into bowls and serve warm.  You can serve it over pasta, or, for an extra dose of San Francisco spirit, slice and toast some sourdough bread for dunking.  Mmmmm…sourdough.

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