pen and palate cioppino

illustration: tram nguyen


I should preface this by saying that this recipe was actually developed by my boyfriend.  Also, I only made it through maybe fifteen minutes of the cooking process before he banished me from the kitchen, for…who even knows?

If pressed to come up with a reason for my exile, I might speculate that it had something to do with me second-guessing every move he made, despite never having actually cooked Cioppino myself.* I have eaten it though, in as ideal a setting as one could hope for.  Last fall, my boyfriend, Romeo, and I were in the Bay area for my cousin’s wedding.  For one of the pre-wedding festivities, we drove through the impossibly picturesque West Marin county, past the giant ancient Redwood trees of Muir woods, to the Tomales Bay Oyster Company.  It’s situated right on the water, with picnic tables that fill up quickly on the weekend, and a little shack where you can buy bags of fresh oysters, mussels, and other seafood. There on several picnic tables we unpacked an assortment of riches from Berkeley Bowl, red wine and crusty bread from the Acme bread company, and the stinkiest meltiest cheeses imaginable. We bought bags of oysters and each took a turn at trying to pry them open.  Except for me, I opted out because I am unambitious and lazy, and value the use of both my hands, and left this dangerous task to others.  (Please invest in an oyster knife, if you are going to engage in this activity.  It’s not that difficult, or so I hear.) My soon-to-be cousin-in-law decided to be an overachiever and deep fry oyster po’ boys, in a big vat of oil right on the grill. I did not quite realize the extent of the danger we were in until much later. It was pretty good, as most deep fried things tend to be, but the sandwich ended up costing like, $50.  All in all, not really worth the risk.

I parked myself in front of the food, sipping my wine, watching as my cousin’s dapper friend chopped up tomatoes and garlic for Cioppino.  He used mussels and shrimp, Thai basil from from my mother’s garden, and a generous glug of red wine. A little while later, I sat down to an incredibly aromatic bowl of soup, took in the first spoonful and…it tasted bland, watery, with big chunks of undercooked garlic and barely a hint of seafood.  Not at all like the ocean.  Romeo and I had been talking about trying to recreate that dish, but to actually get it right this time, so a few weekends ago we picked up a few pounds of mussels, clams and fish.  Cioppino is a really simple dish, an Italian fisherman’s stew, made with whatever was not sold at the market that day.  Our version is not very authentic, as we used a bit of kombu, a dried seaweed often used in asian cooking.  If I had been allowed back in the kitchen, I might have added a few dashes of fish sauce as well.  But I wasn’t, so we’ll never know if this addition would have vastly improved the final product.  Someway, somehow, without my helpful suggestions, less than hour later we sat down to one of the best seafood dishes I have ever eaten.

Feel free to improvise with whatever combination of seafood you prefer.

*In my defense, the aforementioned boyfriend is as guilty of backseat driving as I am.  He used to critique my steak cooking technique, never mind the fact that he is a vegetarian.


Makes 2-3 servings

2 tbs extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1 sprig oregano
2 1/4 lbs whole tomatoes, cut into wedges
1/2 c. white wine
1 2”x3” piece of kombu
3 c. water
salt and pepper
1 lb mussels
1 lb littleneck clams
1/4 lb shrimp
1/3 lb cod
A few sprigs of parsley, roughly chopped

In a large pot, heat 2 tbs of olive oil.  Add onion and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes.  Add garlic, bay leaf, red pepper flakes, and oregano.  Cook, stirring frequently, for another 3 minutes.  Deglaze the pan with white wine.  Add tomatoes, kombu, 1 tbsp salt, and a few grinds of black pepper and cook for another 5 minutes.  Add the water and let simmer, uncovered for 1/2 hour.

Now prep your seafood.  De-beard and scrub mussels and clams.  When your soup has simmered for half an hour, add the mussels and clams and cook for 3 minutes.  Add shrimp and cod and cook for another 3 minutes.  Season to taste.  Garnish with parsley.  This dish is best eaten with a loaf of crusty bread to sop up all that delicious broth.

4 Comments Write a comment

  1. Yum! Sounds delicious especially on a rainy day like today. However, I am a little lazy myself, so maybe the next time you or Romeo decide to make this again you should set the table for 4…just sayin’ :)

  2. I just got back from San Francisco and ordered this – all I gotta say is, OH DAMN. I am going to attempt to make this soon, if you guys are making it in the near future I’d love to learn how.

  3. Dear Mud, you should come over next time Romeo makes this. I am not allowed to step in the kitchen when he is cooking, but you are welcome to test your luck.

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