A fisherman’s feast

Henri celebrates the New Year with a classic San Francisco dish

Photo Illustration by Tina Flynn

In the early ‘80s, I came out every year to San Francisco. My friends Robin and Pat and I would catch the first New Year’s Eve Day flight out of Kennedy International, then take a cab straight to Lace in Place, an antiques shop Robin’s friends Terry and Claudio owned just off Union Square.

After a quick reunion toast, we’d catch a cable car down to Fisherman’s Wharf, pick up the crab and fish for Claudio’s Famous Cioppino, and then go back to their apartment—and cook, drink and eat until just before midnight. After which, of course, a wild night on the town.

The Dungeness crab is named for the fishing village of Dungeness, Wash., one of the first places—along with San Francisco—to begin harvesting it, in 1848. Native to the Pacific Coast of North America, the Dungeness ranges in large numbers from the Aleutian Islands to the Morro Bay area, where the water begins to grow significantly warmer. The Northern California crab season opens Dec. 1 and lasts through mid-summer, although winter is peak season. Assuming storms have not kept the boats from going out, grocery stores and fish markets usually have the best crab at the best prices right around Christmas and New Year’s.

Cioppino is a rich red fisherman’s stew, perfect for a winter evening. Though some swear by specific recipes, it was originally defined—just like its cousins bouillabaisse, paella, and various fish chowders—basically by whatever the boats brought back, along with tomatoes and most anything else that happened to be on hand.

Cioppino originated in San Francisco during the latter half of the 19th century, when Italian fishermen returning to the docks would share the day’s catch. While some claim the word “cioppino” comes from the Italian for “chopped fine,” a more colorful—though most likely apocryphal—story is that the fishermen would call out to each other as they filled their boiling pots, “Chip in! Chip in!” their Italian accents adding the “o” at the end.

This New Year’s, I’ve hired Jonathan as my sous-chef. I’ll run down to Safeway and pick up a couple of crabs and fresh fish, and then Jonathan and I will spend the afternoon cooking. Afterwards, Miss Marilyn and I will settle back by the fire for a night of Judy—A Star is Born, Babes in Arms and Summer Stock. I’m hoping that Jonathan will stay, although I fear that as a young man he will be more inclined—as were we in our youth—to go out on the town, leaving us to welcome the New Year alone, except for memories of auld acquaintances not forgot.

Claudio’s Famous Cioppino

This is Claudio’s version of the classic San Francisco crab-and-tomato stew, which he learned from his grandmother. Feel free to improvise, depending on what you can find at the fish counter as well as in your own refrigerator and cabinets.

1 2-lb. crab, cleaned
2 lbs. rockfish (or any firm white fish)
2 dozen large shrimp
12 clams
12 mussels
6 fresh tomatoes (or the equivalent from cans)
2 onions, sliced
4 cloves crushed garlic
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup chopped celery
1/4 cup parsley
2 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. dried oregano
2 bay leaves
1 8-oz. can tomato paste
1/4 cup vermouth
2 cups white wine
1 cup red wine (or one cup tomato sauce)
1/4 cup lemon juice

In a large pot, melt the butter and sauté the onion. Add the olive oil, bay leaves, garlic, tomatoes, celery, herbs, tomato paste, wine, vermouth, and lemon juice. Simmer for at least an hour. When sauce is done, thin to desired consistency with tomato sauce or red wine—there should be enough sauce to cover the fish. Add the crab, mussels and clams, and simmer another 10 minutes or so (at least until clams open). Add the shrimp and white fish and cook another 10 minutes. Toast it with a glass of bubbly, and then serve with fresh San Francisco sourdough bread, Caesar salad, and a good Pinot Noir or Zinfandel.

Happy New Year, Chico.