‘Chip in’ the New Year

Henri feels crabby, gets stewed

Photo By maggie hoffman

Henri feels crabby, gets stewed

Ladies and gentlemen, mesdames et messieursmes amis Henri has arrived! Oui indeed. Thanks to a tip from an alert reader who was looking for an online recipe for crab several weeks ago, Henri has confirmation that his Chico News & Review column on cioppino (Jan. 1, 2004and reprinted at travelroads.com) has been cited as a reference in none other than the pinnacle of literary scholarship, Wikipedia.

Can a Pulitzer be far behind?

It’s with great pleasure, then, that I offer a somewhat revised edition of that selfsame column—particularly appropriate this week, not only because ciopinno makes for a delightful New Year’s Eve meal but because the 2010-11 local crab season has started out strong, the crabs large and plentiful, and all signs point to a continued bountiful harvest.

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 word 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 Years, I’ve replaced Jonathan with Colette as my sous-chef. We’ll pick up a couple of crabs and fresh fish, and then spend the afternoon cooking. Afterward, we’ll settle back by the fire for a night of Judy—A Star Is Born, Babes in Arms and Summer Stock. Then, along with Miss Marilyn and Mr. Theo, we’ll welcome the New Year, toasting memories and auld acquaintances not forgot.

Claudio’s Famous Cioppino

I was staying with my friend Claudio when I first came out to San Francisco many years ago. This is his 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 2lb. crab, cleaned
2 lbs. rockfish (or any firm white fish)
2 dozen large shrimp
12 clams
12 mussels
6 fresh tomatoes (or the canned equivalent)
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 winethere 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.