You can keep your caviar. When New Year's Eve rolls around, give me crab cioppino. In San Francisco, where I grew up, winter is Dungeness crab season, so cooks are always looking for ways to serve it before it disappears until next year. Nothing warms the soul and makes me look forward to a year of great prospects than a meal of hot cioppino with sourdough bread and Champagne.
Makes 6 servings
Dungeness crab can be found outside of the West Coast at many seafood markets and supermarkets. Most of these places are prepared to cook the crab for you. Cioppino is as messy to eat as it is delicious. Serve it in large, wide bowls with big napkins (or bibs), nutcrackers and long-stemmed shellfish forks to get the meat out of the shells, a bowl to collect said shells, and bowls of hot lemon water for cleaning your fingers. And don’t forget crusty sourdough bread!
If you just can't get or deal with the crabs, make the cioppino with firm white fish (such as cod) and shellfish. For 6 servings, add 1 pound cod fillets, cut into 1-inch chunks, 18 cherrystone clams, and 18 mussels, scrubbed, to the tomato base, and cook for about 10 minutes, until the shellfish is open and the cod is opaque. (Cod is a meaty fish, and is forgiving if overcooked slightly.) You can also use shrimp, scallops, or calamari, timing them appropriately. I add the calamari at the very last, allowing only a couple of minutes to avoid overcooking.
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 large green bell pepper, seeded, cored, and chopped
2 cups chopped fresh fennel
6 garlic cloves, chopped
2 cups dry white wine, such as Pinot Grigio
2 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes in puree
3 cups bottled clam juice
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons dried basil
1 teaspoon fennel seed
1/2 teaspoon crushed hot red pepper flakes, or more to taste
3 cooked Dungeness crabs (have your fish market do this,
or see Note)
24 littleneck clams, scrubbed, soaked in salted ice water for 1 hour, and drained
Salt, to taste
Chopped fresh parsley, for garnish
1. Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion, bell pepper, and fennel. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the wine and increase the heat to high. Boil until the wine is evaporated by half, about 10 minutes.
2. Add the tomatoes and their puree, the clam juice, oregano, basil, fennel seed, and hot pepper. Bring to a boil, stirring often. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until lightly thickened, about 1 hour.
3. Working with one crab at a time, pull off the top shell and discard. Pull off the triangular apron and discard, along with any attached viscera. Rinse the crab under cold water and cut into quarters.
4. Add the clams to the pot and stir as best as you can. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the clams have opened, about 10 minutes. Using tongs, transfer the clams to a bowl and cover to keep warm. Add the crab to the pot (it will not all be covered in the tomato base), cover, and cook until heated through, about 5 minutes.
5. Using tongs, transfer two crab quarters (one quarter with a large claw and another with the legs) and 4 clams to each of six wide soup bowls. Season the cooking liquid with salt, if needed. Ladle the liquid into the bowl, sprinkle with parsley, and serve.
Note: If you must cook the crabs at home, it is simply a matter of bringing a large kettle of salted water to a boil, adding the crabs, and cooking about 15 minutes until the shells turn deep orange-red. You may have to do this in batches. Chill the cooked crabs on lots of ice.