Cioppino is a fish stew, popular along both coasts of the United States as well as in Italy, where the word cioppino comes from. The Italian inspiration for cioppino is known as zuppa di pesca, or “soup of fish.” Many cioppinos are made with a regional focus, integrating ingredients like Dungeness crab in San Francisco or lobster in Maine. Cioppino is similar to bouillabaisse, a French seafood stew, although it does not usually include saffron, a vital ingredient of bouillabaisse.
Cioppino was allegedly invented in San Francisco by Italian-American fishermen creating Americanized versions of seafood stews from home. Cioppino is characterized by a wide mixture of extremely fresh seafood, which might include mussels, clams, scallops, halibut, bass, shrimp, or anything else the cook can obtain. True cioppino ingredients change from day to day, depending on which fish are available and the location of the cook.
When selecting fish, try to make certain that it has been caught that day and handled on ice since being taken from the ocean. Ideally, fish should be stored under ice, so that as it melts, it carries secretions away, rather than collecting them under the fish. Being stored under ice also ensures that the fish remains evenly chilled and is not exposed to potential airborne contaminants. Fish should never smell fishy or be slimy to the touch. Cooked fish should never be stored in the same case with raw fish.
Shellfish should be open and stored in slotted containers, so that as it urinates and excretes, these materials are carried out, not stewed with your food. When tapped, shellfish should close.
Farmer's markets are often an excellent resource for high quality fish. Since fish is the basis of a cioppino, it is well worth it to invest in the best possible fish, for your health and for the flavor of the food. Also be aware that some fish may be high in mercury, especially swordfish and other fatty fishes. You should minimize your intake of these fishes.
To make cioppino, start by preparing and precooking the seafood. Steam shellfish, reserving the water, and briefly steam the rest of the seafood. Sautee onions and garlic in olive oil, adding mushrooms, bell peppers, and other vegetables if inclined to do so. Toss with salt, red pepper, and cracked black pepper before adding red or white wine and tomato paste. Add the shellfish broth and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.
Layer the seafood in a pot, starting with trimmed crab or lobster if you have it, adding the chunks of fish, and placing the shellfish on top. If you are running out of space, you can halve the shellfish, leaving only the bottom part of the shell in the stew and discarding the rest. Pour the sauce over the seafood mixture and steam for eight to ten minutes.
Ladle the food directly from the pot, refrigerating unserved portions immediately. Garnish with parsley or cilantro and lemon. Crusty French bread makes an excellent accompaniment, as well.