San Francisco Cioppino

by Lisa McRee

cioppinoWhether or not you’re trying to lose weight, here’s a hearty but superhealthy one pot dish that’s perfect on a cold night: Skinny San Francisco Cioppino.

An iconic seafood stew that evolved in the late 19th century when Italian and Portuguese fisherman ruled the bays of San Francisco and Monterrey, some say its name originated from “Ciuppin,” the Genoese word for fish stew.  Other folklore holds that it came from the heavily accented fishermen who called out to one another to “chip in” to the communal stew pot any leftover scraps from the day’s catch.

But wherever the name came from, the basic recipe is always the same: any combination of fresh fish and shellfish–like calamari, cod, halibut, sardines, crabs, clams, mussels and/or shrimp–cooked in a flavorful broth made of fish heads, herbs, onions, tomatoes, fennel and wine, sherry or vermouth.

In this version, all the flavorful veggies, herbs, spices and vermouth are there…but since no one (sadly) boils their own fish heads anymore, I’ve called for good quality seafood broth or chicken broth mixed with anchovy paste, instead. And by bumping up the ratio of vegetables to seafood, the result is lower in calories  but just as satisfying as the original…which means you can afford to have a slender slice of toasted sourdough bread with it as well.

So if you’re looking for a taste of the bay area without making a trip, pour a glass of red wine, put on a little Tony Bennett and try this!


(makes about 8 2-cup bowls)

Though this recipe is already easy, it’s really a snap–and actually tastes better– if you make the broth in the morning or even the night before you plan to serve it, stowing the whole pot in the fridge. When you’re ready to finish it, marinate your fresh chunks of fish filets in a bowl with a few tablespoons of the cold broth for 20 minutes to 2 hours, bring the broth back to a hard simmer and drop in the fresh seafood.

2 yellow onions, chopped
2 large bell peppers (red, green or both), chopped
3-4 stalks of celery, including leaves
2 fennel bulbs, cored and chopped or sliced
2 tablespoons garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried red pepper flakes
1 pound brown button mushrooms, sliced
A bundle of fresh thyme and parsley, tied with twine (If you don’t have fresh thyme, you can substitute 1 teaspoon of dried thyme. But don’t bother with dried parsley, it has no real flavor.)
1/2 cup extra dry vermouth (You can use white wine, but vermouth is better.)
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes with basil
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes with juice  (For a little more depth of flavor, try the fire roasted variety.)
6 cups good quality seafood broth OR substitute 6 cups chicken broth mixed with 2 t of anchovy paste
1 10-ounce can of whole baby clams with juice
1/2 cup fresh basil, chopped
1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1/4 cup feathery fennel fronds, chopped (optional)

2-3 pounds fresh seafood, a mix of boneless white fish filets and shellfish works best  (Here I’ve used 2 pounds of cod filets, a 1/2 pound of raw, peeled, whole shrimp and a 1/2 pound of calamari (squid) cut into rings…but I’ve also used halibut, haddock and pollack. I stay away from swordfish because of mercury issues and though I have used Pacific snapper, the pin bones can be tricky so I usually avoid it in stews.)

Heat a large soup pot (enameled if you have it for easy cleaning) over medium high heat.

When the pot is hot, spray with cooking oil and add the onions, bell peppers, celery and fennel and stir a couple of minutes until slightly softened.

Add the garlic, oregano and red pepper flakes and stir until you begin to smell the garlic. Toss in the mushrooms and cook a few minutes more.

Add the bundle of herbs and vermouth and stir 2 minutes.

Add the 2 cans of tomatoes and broth and stir again.

As soon as it starts to boil, turn heat down to very low and simmer for 20 minutes.

At that point, pull about a 1/4 cup of the broth from the pot and put it in a small bowl.

Let it cool slightly and toss it with your chopped cod or halibut to marinate while you simmer the broth 20 minutes more.

Remove the bundle of herbs and drop in the chunks of white fish, pushing them down into the broth.

 Add the shrimp a couple of minutes later and when they go pink, add the calamari, turning off the heat after just 2 minutes so it won’t overcook.

Pour in the can of clams with its juice and toss in the the fresh basil, parsley, and feathery fennel fronds, stirring so the clams warm and the herbs slightly wilt.

Serve with a couple of thin wedges of toasted sourdough and add more fresh herbs on top if you like. (Whole Foods now makes a sourdough with whole grains for extra fiber that’s delicious.)


After 25 years as a local and network anchor, Lisa McRee was just another American mother struggling, and failing, to lose weight. Finally, she cracked the code, and lost 30 pounds, quickly and for good, by doing what she loves: reporting, cooking and eating! Visit The Skinny to see how she did it.

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