provided by Jim Gordon
Try the warming West Coast bouillabaisse

What to make of March? It’s almost spring but this shifty month can turn nasty on you at any time. Technically it’s still winter until nearly April so, in terms of cooking, a rich stew continues to makes sense. But then again it’s not quite so cold anymore so you have a chance to turn away from beef and other heavy stews.

My recommendation for an early spring dinner for a big group of friends or family is the traditional West Coast fish stew, called cioppino (choh-PEE-no). Lore says Italian immigrant fishermen in San Francisco about a century ago invented it. They turned tomatoes, herbs and the cheapest seafood of the day into a really hearty, but not so heavy, dish that feeds a crowd.

This is a great main dish when you’re entertaining several couples. It’s also one of those fish dishes that has no problem with red wine, especially Pinot Noir. This version is not from San Francisco, but from San Luis Obispo, an old California coastal city with a fishing tradition. Its creators are Wendy and Leonard Cohen, proprietors of a long-running restaurant named the Olde Porte Inn and of a newer winery, See Canyon.

It’s going to cost some money to collect all the seafood. And you should make the extra effort to find fresh herbs rather than dried ones (which can be substituted in half quantities if you get stuck). But this dish is worth it. It’s a big Italian style production of a meal that is lots of fun.

You can do the chopping of vegetables and herbs, the scrubbing of clams and mincing of garlic in the morning, and have everything ready for the final 30-minute prep after your guests arrive. My wife and I like to serve this as part of a casual, buffet meal, where guests come by the stove for a bowl of hot cioppino ladled straight from the pot.

Olde Port Inn Cioppino

For the stock:

3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 1/4 lbs. leeks (white parts only) cut on the bias into 1-inch pieces
1 1/4 lbs. yellow onions, diced into 1-inch cubes
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1 1/2 cups chopped fresh parsley
4-6 bay leaves
1 teaspoon saffron threads
1 cup dry red wine
1 cup dry white wine
3 lbs. peeled tomatoes or 28 oz. canned whole Italian tomatoes, chopped
2 lbs. additional tomatoes or an extra 28-oz. can Italian tomatoes, pureed
2 teaspoons Tabasco sauce

For the seafood:

2 lbs. meaty fish fillets, like halibut, salmon or swordfish, with all bones removed
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup white wine
10 large prawns, peeled
20 large scallops
30 live clams in the shell, brushed clean in cold water
2 sticks (8 oz.) butter
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Add all the stock ingredients except the wine, tomatoes and Tabasco sauce to a 1-gallon stock pot and cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the vegetable are soft, about 15 minutes. Add the wine and simmer for 15 more minutes. Add the chopped and pureed tomatoes and simmer for 30 minutes.

Prepare the seafood while the stock ingredients are simmering. In a large sauté pan, cook 1 clove of minced garlic in 1/2 cup of the white wine over high heat until garlic is soft, about 2 minutes. Add the fish fillets and cook until the flesh starts to whiten, about 2 minutes. Flip the fillets and add one stick butter (4 oz.) to the pan. Reduce the heat to low and cook fish until medium rare, about 5 minutes. Remove fillets and add them to the stock, where they will finish cooking and break into hearty chunks.

Add the remaining garlic and 1/2 cup wine to the seafood sauté pan, and cook over high heat until garlic is tender, about 1 minute. Add the prawns, scallops and clams and cook until the scallops begin to turn pale white. Flip the prawns and scallops, add the remaining butter, reduce to low heat and simmer until the flesh is medium rare, 2 – 3 more minutes. Remove the prawns and scallops from the pan and add them to the stock. When the clams have opened in a few more minutes, add them along with the remaining juices to the stock. Gently stir all of the ingredients together, season with salt and pepper to taste an serve immediately in large, heated soup bowls. Top with grated Parmesan.

Serves 10-12

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