Fresh Catch, in a Bowl

There's something about salty sea air that stokes the appetite. Add a cool breeze and damp low-lying fog and you've got a recipe for hunger that only a large bowl of local seafood can satisfy.
I never counted myself among the consumers of large pots of 'a little of this, a little of that,' generally less adventurous than willing to dig into what's available yet...er...undefined. That was before I discovered how beautifully cioppino showcases the catch of the day.
An Italian fisherman's stew, cioppino has origins along the wharf towns in California but has been linked to San Francisco most frequently. Dating back 100 years, when Italian seamen flocked to the ethnic neighborhood of North Beach, they wandered amongst the docks looking for leftovers from the day's catch, or 'chopped' pieces, as the Genovese dialect roughly translates. A communal stew was procured from one man's dungeness crab, another's mussels, another's dash of herbs and veggies. Truly a rustic group effort, the fish somehow harmonize in a delicious fresh tomato and wine broth. Sourdough was a popular accessory for sopping up the remains.

While in Moss Landing, CA (near Monterrey) with my future in-laws, we made a beeline for Phil's Fish Market after an excursion out on the Elkhorn Slough (the largest salt marsh outside of San Francisco Bay, and a key ecological breeding ground). Despite the highlights of snugly sea lion pups, rafts of sea otters and a few bird nests, I was chilled to be the bone (May on the Peninsula is not quite summer like!). Time for a warm up, and we picked the local favorite.

Like San Francisco, Monterrey is home to another tourist's haven Fisherman's Wharf. But it's out to this landing that truly feels authentic. Seconds away from the sea, the fish is beyond fresh and Phil's famous cioppino is properly zesty and overflowing with sea legs and shells. Bib and shelling utensils are included, as they should be with a true rustic cioppino. Portions come for one, or the whole table, but always in one big pot. I didn't realize it at the time, but Bobby Flay had even paid Phil a visit for his throwdown challenge on the Food Network, an honor for one of the best versions of the fish stew on the coast. According to the tale, there's no less than seven different types of locally caught, fresh fish in the batch. From striped bass to scallops, it's an unforgettable combination.

Back here in Chicago, the lake can definitely cause some cool weather to come in, even during these early weeks of summer. While the West coast and sea air might be hard to match, I'd suggest paying a visit to Dirk's in Chicago, a local favorite that promotes fresh and sustainable fish.
I've included the Gourmet magazine recipe here, and suggest stealing a twist on the sourdough bowl that Bobby Flay used and making sourdough croutons to top your flavorful fish stew. Try making the broth a day in advance, then grab some friends and hit the market that day. Try having everyone pick a shellfish or whitefish to contribute to the pot- chip in! chip in-o!

Classic Cioppino:

4 large garlic cloves, minced
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1 Turkish bay leaf or 1/2 California bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
1 teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
1 green bell pepper, cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 1/2 cups dry red wine
1 (28- to 32-ounces) can whole plum tomatoes, drained, reserving juice, and chopped
1 cup bottled clam juice
1 cup chicken broth
1 (1-pound) king crab leg, thawed if frozen
18 small (2-inch) hard-shelled clams (1 1/2 pound) such as little necks, scrubbed
1 pound skinless red snapper or halibut fillets, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
1 pound large shrimp (16 to 20), shelled (tails and bottom segment of shells left intact) and deveined
3/4 pound sea scallops, tough muscle removed from side of each if necessary
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil

Cook garlic, onions, bay leaf, oregano, and red pepper flakes with salt and pepper in oil in an 8-quart heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring, until onions are softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in bell pepper and tomato paste and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add wine and boil until reduced by about half, 5 to 6 minutes. Add tomatoes with their juice, clam juice, and broth and simmer, covered, 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

While stew is simmering, hack crab leg through shell into 2- to 3-inch pieces with a large heavy knife. Add crab pieces and clams to stew and simmer, covered, until clams just open, 5 to 10 minutes, checking every minute after 5 minutes and transferring opened clams to a bowl with tongs or a slotted spoon.

Lightly salt and season season fish fillets, shrimp, and scallops with salt and add to stew, then simmer, covered, until just cooked through, about 5 minutes.

Discard bay leaf, then return clams to pot and gently stir in parsley and basil. Serve piping hot!

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