Cioppino – Seafood Unchained

Every once in a while I get a hankering for a dish of mixed seafood. Sometimes linguini-based  frutti di mare ends up on our plates, other times that mouth-watering French mouthful bouillabaisse gets the nod. More often than not, I opt for that seafoodies’ wet dream, cioppino.

Born on the fabled fishing piers of 1880s San Francisco, cioppino is a descendant of catch-of-the-day concoctions on Genovese fishing boats. After a long day asea wresting fish, shrimp or shellfish from Neptune’s grip, fishermen would pool some of their briny booty to be cooked up in large pots on the wharves. According to popular legend, wharf-side hash slingers would encourage returning anglers, netters and clammers to “chip in” for a communal stew in their heavily accented English. Hence, the word cioppino (chip peen’ o) was born. Of course that may just be an anti-immigrant slur from another era.

I’m not sure how, why or even when I first cottoned to cioppino, but I’ve been making it since sometime in the late ‘80s. No, not the 1880s. I remember loving the process as much as the results. It is, after all, a potluck of assorted seafood, cornucopious vegetables and Italian herbs and seasonings pitched into a tomato-based broth. Seafood unchained; culinary anarchy at its best. There are even versions without tomatoes, but I like my fish stew tomato-ized so I have an excuse to open a nice bottle of Chianti.

I also know that my approach to cioppino has evolved considerably. Most recently, I began the process by brewing a batch of fish stock, also known as fish fumet. In the past, I would toss a bottle or two of clam juice into chicken or vegetable stock and let the piscine and edenic plunder go swimming in that. It was always very good, but the introduction of a good fish broth—whether homemade or store bought—will add unfathomable depth to your stew.

Fish Stock/Fumet Recipe

Like cioppino, fish stocks are a haphazard venture. Any lean white saltwater fish heads and bones are best: halibut, flounder, cod, etc. Oily, fatty fish such as salmon or mackerel are not recommended. If you have shrimp or any shellfish shells, add them to sweeten the broth. Besides the ingredients listed below, you can chop and cook any odds and ends of vegetables or herbs you care to use, including fennel, leeks, spinach, kale, basil. If your cioppino recipe includes leeks or a fennel bulb, toss the coarsely chopped tops and bottoms of both into the stock. With the latest batch, I tossed in broccoli, cauliflower, small tomatoes and carrots – all left over from a veggie tray.


  • ½ gallon water
  • 1-2 lbs. fish heads and/or bones, gills removed and rinsed of blood, coarsely chopped.
  • 1 med yellow onion, including paper, thinly sliced
  • 2-3 shallots, including paper, coarsely chopped
  • 4-6 garlic cloves, including paper, crushed and coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1 stalk of celery, including leafy tops, coarsely chopped
  • 1 carrot, scrubbed but not peeled, coarsely chopped, including and green tops
  • 2 parsley stems, coarsely chopped; leaves reserved
  • ½ tsp each dried herbs (or to taste, ideally bound up in a cheesecloth sachet or large tea ball), especially oregano, thyme, chives, tarragon, fennel seeds, pepper corns
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Salt and pepper to taste


  1. Heat salted water in large pot. Place fish heads, bones in water, bring to boil. Reduce heat and move any foam that collects on the surface.
  2. Add all remaining ingredients. Simmer for 20 minutes or more.
  3. Remove from heat, allow to cool slightly, then strain broth through a colander.
  4. Add broth to whatever seafood dish being prepared. If you make more stock than needed, it can be kept frozen for at least a couple of months.

Yield: 6-8 cups

Note: Some recipes call for the onions, garlic and other veggies and for the fish parts to be lightly sautéed in butter and/or olive oil before adding water. Sauté the white veggies up to 5 minutes until the onions are opaque; sauté fish 2-5 minutes until bones are opaque. To save time, I did not sauté anything here and turned out a hearty fish stock; sautéing the veggies and the fish parts may add even more flavor to the final broth.


Traditional cioppino includes nearly any fish, crustacean or mollusk caught in the water off the northern California coast. Ingredients vary according to availability. To augment flavors, anchovies and concentrated fish sauces can be added in small amounts. Clam juice is another possible option. Additional vegetables can include chopped bell peppers and sliced mushrooms. Crab, especially Dungeness crab, is a popular ingredient. To complete the authentic Frisco experience, serve with warmed sourdough bread.


  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large fennel bulb, thinly sliced
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 3 large shallots, chopped
  • 1 medium leek, white portion rinsed and halved lengthwise then cut in 1 inch sections
  • ½ sweet bell pepper, diced
  • ½ tablespoons each Italian herbs, preferably mixed in cachet: oregano, thyme, tarragon, marjoram, savory
  • 4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 4-8 oz. sliced mushrooms
  • 1 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
  • 1 pinch crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
  • ¼ cup tomato paste
  • 28 oz. diced tomatoes in juice
  • 1½ cups dry white wine
  • 5 cups fish stock
  • 1 teaspoon Red Boat fish sauce
  • 1 teaspoon anchovies
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 12 littleneck or other saltwater clams, scrubbed
  • 12 mussels, scrubbed, debearded
  • 12 uncooked large shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • ½ lb bay scallops
  • ¼ lb squid; sliced crosswise
  • 1 lb firm-fleshed fish fillets such as halibut or salmon, cut into 2-inch chunks (I used both)
  • 1 cup Italian flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped


  1. Heat oil in large pot over medium heat.
  2. Salt and sauté fennel, onion, leeks, bell pepper and shallots until the onion is translucent, about 10 minutes.
  3. Add garlic and red pepper flakes, saute 2 minutes.
  4. Stir in and briefly sauté tomato paste.
  5. Add tomatoes with their juices, wine, fish stock and bay leaf. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer to blend flavors–about 30 minutes.
  6. Add the clams, mussels and mushrooms. Cover and simmer until the shellfish begin to open; about 5 minutes.
  7. Add the basil, shrimp, squid, scallops and fish. Simmer gently until the fish and shrimp are just cooked through, stirring gently, about 5 more minutes (discard any clams and mussels that have not opened by now). This would also be the time to add any crab or other crustaceans.
  8. Season the stew to taste with more salt and red pepper flakes.
  9. Serve the stew in bowls, garnish with parsley and serve.

Makes about 10-12 servings; ingredients can be scaled for fewer servings

Cioppino - Seafood Unchained
Cioppino and its soulmate, sourdough bread.




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