After a brief delay, Dungeness crab season is in full, seafood-y swing in San Francisco. With a rich, clean flavor and a substantial texture (closer to lobster or snow crab than the silky, tender shreds of Atlantic blues), Dungeness is a much-beloved delicacy of my adopted city and the traditional Christmas Eve meal for many natives. And at the risk of being run out of town, I’ll just say that I’m learning to appreciate it, though my affection for summer crab cracks in DC, the table covered in newspaper and fingers coated in Old Bay, still wins out in the end. (Speaking of which, I’ve had Chesapeake Bay-style crab cakes twice now on this trip alone. In between visits, I sprinkle Old Bay on my popcorn and sweet potatoes to get me through. My allegiance runs deep.)
That said, Dungeness also makes for a fabulous (and, if you’re keeping score, historically accurate) addition to cioppino, a zesty tomato-based seafood stew. Invented by Italian fishermen who worked the cold waters of the San Francisco Bay during the Gold Rush, it’s a throw-what-you-want-in-it kind of soup, a collection of the day’s catch, cut up (in Ligurian dialect, ciuppin means “chop” or “chopped”) and tossed in the pot with herbs, tomatoes and fish stock.
Many moons later and 3,000 miles away due east, my mother served a spicy, warming cioppino over the holiday, a hearty-but-healthy antidote to the blustery winter weather outside. No Dungeness to be had here on the East Coast, though, and her recipe comes (somewhat implausibly) from a tavern in Old Town Alexandria, a colonial-era neighborhood near DC.
And not to be any more disloyal, San Francisco, but as flavorful as this cioppino turned out, I think it might benefit from a healthy dash of Old Bay. Can I still come home?
adapted from the Union Street Public House; serves about six
- 3 Tbsp olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 leek, white and light green parts chopped
- 1 shallot, minced
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 1 C celery, finely chopped
- 1 C carrots, diced
- 1 tsp fresh thyme, minced
- 1 tsp fresh oregano, minced
- 1 tsp fresh basil, minced
- 1 C red wine
- 3 C fish stock
- 2 (6-oz) cans chopped clams, plus their juice
- 1 (14-oz) can chopped tomatoes, preferably fire-roasted style
- 1 tsp crushed red pepper
- 1 Tbsp tomato paste
- 1 bay leaf
- dash or two of Worcestershire sauce
- assorted seafood and shellfish (i.e., 1 lb large shrimp, 3/4 lb sea scallops, 1 lb firm-fleshed whitefish such as cod or halibut, live mussels and clams, live or cooked Dungeness crab, etc.)
- flat-leaf Italian parsley, finely chopped (optional)
Steam, clean and crack the Dungeness crab, if using. Peel and devein the shrimp, scrub and debeard the shellfish and cut the whitefish into 1 1/2″ hunks. Season the scallops and whitefish lightly with salt and pepper.
In a heavy-bottomed dutch oven or pot, sweat the garlic, leeks, shallot, onion, celery and carrots in the olive oil until softened, about five minutes. Add the herbs and tomato paste and stir to combine; cook an additional minute. Add the bay leaf, wine, stock, clam juice (reserve the chopped clams) and chopped tomato. Bring to a boil; reduce the heat to low-medium and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the Worcestershire and adjust the seasonings and salt to your taste.
With the broth just barely at a simmer, add the chopped and whole clams and mussels; heat one minute. Add the whitefish, shrimp and scallops and heat until just cooked (when the shrimp turn pink and curl in on themselves, about 3-4 minutes). Take care not to overcook. Discard any unopened clams or mussels. Add the cracked crab. Sprinkle with parsley and serve warm with crusty sourdough bread or garlic-rubbed crostini.