The crabs are back

With Dungeness season in full bloom, Henri is itchin’ to make cioppino

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 normally begins around the beginning of December 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.

This year, however, even though the Bay Area and central coast seasons have been underway since November, commercial crabbing in many areas from Northern California through Washington have been delayed due to low or poor-quality meat, causing the price to spike around the holidays. But with the ban scheduled to be lifted Jan. 15, affordable crab—and with it the traditional New Year’s meal of cioppino—is on the horizon

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.

Below is a favorite version of the classic San Francisco crab-and-tomato stew from my auld friend from The City, Claudio, 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.

Claudio’s Famous Cioppino

1/4 cup butter

2 onions, sliced

1/4 cup olive oil

2 bay leaves

4 cloves crushed garlic

6 fresh tomatoes (or the equivalent from cans)

1/4 cup chopped celery

1/4 cup parsley

2 tsp. dried basil

1 tsp. dried oregano

1 8-oz. can tomato paste

1/4 cup vermouth

2 cups white wine

1/4 cup lemon juice

1 cup red wine (or one cup tomato sauce)

1 2-lb. crab, cleaned

12 clams

12 mussels

2 lbs. rockfish (or any firm white fish)

2 dozen large shrimp

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), stirring occasionally and gently so as to not break up crab too much. Add the shrimp and white fish and cook another 10 minutes.

Serve with fresh San Francisco sourdough bread, Caesar salad and a good pinot noir or zinfandel.

Happy New Year, Chico.