Cioppino is a rustic Italian-American fish stew, full of fresh seafood in a tomato and wine broth that tastes like the sea. It is also known as the Fisherman’s Stew. This is what we prepared for Christmas Eve dinner this year. It is our take on the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
It is said Cioppino originated with Italian immigrant fishermen in San Francisco in the late 1800s using whatever seafood was leftover from the day’s catch. Those fishermen would share with others who came home empty-handed.
The seafood stew is a grab bag of ingredients and could easily be adapted to whatever was available. Other cultures have versions of Cioppino, mainly France. Their fisherman’s stew is known as bouillabaisse. The main difference between Cioppino and bouillabaisse is that bouillabaisse has saffron added to its fish broth with chopped tomatoes.
How to Make Cioppino
The broth for this Fisherman’s stew is incredibly easy to make, with canned crushed tomatoes, white wine, and seafood stock. Seafood stock is not a readily available item in most grocery stores, so you could use clam juice or a suitable substitute (see note below in the recipe section). I use a product called Clam Base, which is a clam stock concentrate. Just add water for a very tasty broth.
Freshly chopped fennel and dried fennel seeds team with garlic and onion to become a great flavor builder. After the Cioppino broth simmers, add the seafood, then cover and simmer until the shellfish open.
Serve Cioppino with garlic bread, focaccia, or a baguette for sopping up the broth. Don’t forget a second bowl for the shells and you may need plenty of napkins. Be sure not to eat any unopened clams or mussels. Just discard them.
Feast of the Seven Fishes
The tradition of enjoying a large meatless Christmas Eve meal was and is common across Italy. It is also very common in many other Roman Catholic countries. But the origins of the Feast of the Seven Fishes have its roots in southern Italy.
There are no hard-and-fast rules about the preparation of the Feast of the Seven Fishes. But there is plenty of debate over its origin and how to celebrate this Italian tradition. Which fish should be included and how they should be prepared can vary. Some people cook seven courses; some choose to make 12 (because of the 12 apostles). Or they just put a bunch of seafood in a stew and call it good (kind of like me making this Cioppino).
Many families keep their own traditions, but everyone who celebrates can agree: Seafood should be prepared and consumed on Christmas Eve. Preferably with wine.
In Italy, they would have simply called the feast la vigilia.
Those immigrants, however, probably didn’t call it the “Feast of the Seven Fishes.” More likely, they called it some variation of La Cena della Vigilia, Il Cenone, La Vigilia di Natale, or simply La Vigilia. (“La Viglila di Natale” is Christmas Eve in Italian. La Cena is dinner in Italian.)
The name of the feast, and the tradition of making exactly seven types of fish, come from the West. “Not many people observe these numbers in Italy,” said cookbook author Amy Riolo. “It’s much more popular in America. Americans love themes.”
“As an Italian, I must admit I hadn’t heard about [the Feast of Seven Fishes] … and most of my Italian friends haven’t either,” Katia Amore wrote in Italy Magazine. My Italian teacher Elisabetta in Pisa also had not heard of the Seven Fishes. Her family just calls it La Cena della Viglila. And I don’t think she is having Cioppino this year.
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 large fennel bulb cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 1 large onion cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 3 garlic cloves chopped
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tsp oregano
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- ½ tsp red pepper flakes
- 1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
- 4 cups seafood stock or a suitable substitute* see note
- 1½ cups dry white wine
- Salt & pepper to taste
- 1 lb cod fillets skin removed cut into 2-inch dice
- 1 lb large shrimp peeled and deveined, no tail
- 1 lb bay scallops
- 1 lb calamari pieces
- 1 dozen mussels scrubbed
- 1 dozen littleneck clams
- 1 tbsp anise flavored liqueur such as Pernod Optional
- 3 tbsp parsley minced
- Heat the olive oil in a heavy pot over medium heat.
- Add the chopped fennel and onion and sauté for 10 minutes, until tender.
- Add the garlic, fennel seeds, and red pepper flakes and cook for 2 minutes.
- Add the crushed tomatoes, seafood stock, wine, Salt & pepper and bring to a boil
- Lower the heat, and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes.
- After 30 minutes of simmering, add the seafood in the following order: Clams, the cod, Calamari, shrimp, scallops, and the mussels.
- Cover and cook on low for 8-10 minutes until the seafood is cooked and the shellfish open.
- If using, stir in the Pernod, cover and set aside for 1-2 minutes for the flavors to blend.
- Don't forget to take out the bay leaf
- Discard any clams or mussels that have not opened.
- Serve in large, shallow bowls, sprinkle with the parsley
- Serve with slices of bread.
Half a cup of chicken broth or half vegetable broth, mixed with half a cup of water, will work as a great fish stock substitute. Cutting the broth with water will stop the flavors of seafood in the dish from getting muddied since both chicken and vegetable broths can be very strong and salty. Bottled clam broth makes a good substitute for plain fish stock. To make your own quick fish stock, simmer 16 oz. bottled clam juice, 1 quart low-sodium chicken stock, and the shrimp shells in a small sauce pan for 15-20 minutes. Strain out the shells.
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