I lived for a couple happy years in Half Moon Bay, just a few clicks down the coast from San Francisco, and while the area offered me many culinary delights, few spoke to my soul as deeply as Dungeness crab. Buttery, rich, generous in meat and flavor, Dungeness crab tastes of the sea – sweet, briny, succulent and altogether irresistible. Purchased right off the boat in Princeton Harbor, the crabs were fresh and frisky and damn delicious boiled simply with a little drawn butter on the side or cooked into a luscious, richly satisfying cioppino. The crab season runs from mid-November through the beginning of June, but the peak season is December and January, when the crabs pulled up are large, feisty, and fantastic. For me this time is always cioppino season.
While there will always be some debate on the actual origin of this tomato-rich seafood stew (perhaps based on the Genovese cioppin?), few will argue that cioppino is a significant part of the rich culinary heritage of the San Francisco Bay Area. Cioppino recipes are diverse and individualized to say the least, but no recipe is complete without the star of the show – the regal, spectacular Dungeness crab.
Generally speaking you’ll find crab, shrimp, clams perhaps, and some sort of local white-fleshed fish like halibut, rockfish, or lingcod stewed gently in a tomato-based broth with white wine, fennel, and a pinch of chili flakes. Served with toasted hunks of dredge-worthy sourdough bread, cioppino makes a fabulous, celebratory meal on a chilly, foggy night.
This recipe will serve six people with hearty appetites. Add in a simple salad for a little balance and you’ve got the kind of killer meal your friends will rave about for months!
You will need a pot large enough to accommodate two whole crabs.
2 large Dungeness crabs, about 2 lbs apiece
water, 2 halved lemons, ½ cup salt, a celery stalk
2 tbl olive oil & 2 tbl butter
1 large fennel bulb, sliced thinly (reserve a few of the feathery fronds for garnish)
2 celery stalks, thinly sliced
1 large onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tbl kosher salt
1 tbl cracked black pepper
1 6-ounce can of tomato paste
1 to 2 cups dry white wine (I used sauvignon blanc, but any (non-oaky) white will do)
1 28-ounce can good quality diced tomatoes
3 cups tomato sauce (I used homemade, but any good quality jarred or canned sauce will do)
1 tsp dried oregano
1 bay leaf
1 tsp dried chili flakes
4 cups chicken broth (again, I used homemade but feel free to use any low-sodium canned variety)
1 8-ounce bottle clam juice
1 lb medium to large shrimp (slit down the back to remove the poop vein, leaving the shell on)
1 lb little neck or manila clams
¾ lb halibut or similar white-fleshed fish
¾ lb fresh bay scallops
¾ lb calamari, tentacles and bodies (bodies cut into rings)
fresh basil, minced
fresh celery leaf, minced
fresh fennel fronds (reserved from above), minced
crusty sourdough bread
First you need to cook the crabs. Fill pot with water about 2/3 full, or enough to cover crabs. Add two halved lemons, salt, and a celery stalk. Bring to a full rolling boil and drop in the two crabs. Bring the water back up to a full boil and then reduce heat so the crabs cook at a gentle boil. Cook for about 20-25 minutes or until cooked. When the crabs are cooked you’ll notice white fluids from the crab body coagulating in clumps, appearing a bit like scrambled egg whites. Remove crabs from water and place in a large bowl. Cover with ice water to stop the cooking process.
Discard water. Clean your pot and heat it over medium-high heat. Add olive oil and butter. When butter has melted add sliced fennel, celery, onion, and garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Sauté veggies, stirring occasionally, until softened and just beginning to brown at the edges, about 15 minutes.
Crank heat to high. Add tomato paste and stir into softened vegetable mixture. Cook until tomato paste has darkened slightly. Add white wine and scrap the bottom of the pot to loosen any paste that may have adhered to the bottom of the pot. Cook wine and veggies, smelling occasionally until the sharp tang of alcohol is no longer present. Add canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, dried spices, chicken broth, and clam juice. Bring up to a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer. Simmer this cioppino base over low heat for at least 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, scrub the clams to remove any sand. Cut the fish into bite size pieces. Slit shrimp down the back with scissors by placing the bottom blade of the scissors under the shell at the head of the shrimp. Clip back of shell until open from head to tail. With a paring knife cut a deeper slit into the meat of the shrimp and remove the digestive tract, the “poop” vein.
Break the crabs down by removing the hard back shell. Discard. Remove the thin, pointed shell the runs down the center bottom of the crab and discard. Remove the “face” of the crab. Break each crab into two symmetrical halves. Using your fingers remove any scummy stuff (the crab organs) and the feathery gills. With a sharp, heavy knife cut each half into two pieces, one front portion with the claw attached and one back portion. This will yield eight crab portions including legs and the tender body meat.
After the base has cooked for 30 minutes or more, bring back to a boil and add shrimp and clams. Cook for about 5 minutes or until clams just start opening. Add fish, scallops, calamari, and crab portions. Simmer, stirring gently and frequently, until all the clams have opened.
Combine minced basil, celery leaf, and reserved fennel fronds. Spoon hot cioppino into very large bowls. Top with herb garnish. Serve with lemons, warm crusty bread, and crab crackers. Roll up your sleeves and enjoy!!