Cucina povera. Italian for the “food of the poor.”
It’s also the food of my grandmother.
She wasn’t Italian, my grandpa was. She was Spanish, born in Cadíz. But doing your best with what you have is a philosophy that spans the world’s cuisines, and she was certainly no stranger to it. Out of necessity, she started cooking for her family as a young girl. And, out of necessity, she became an expert at transforming cheap cuts and pantry staples into ambrosia.
These skills would serve her well for the rest of her life. Feeding people fed her soul, but not her pocketbook, so she mastered the art of combining abundance with frugality. She knew how to coax big flavor from a little meat and a whole lot of beans. She knew how to use every part of the bird. She needed just a touch of butter and a small handful of almonds to make her signature anise-scented biscotti — and her cookie jar was always full.
She came from a big family, and gave birth to a big family, so at any given time there would be a dozen or more of us at her house, grazing on savory tortas and fried calamari. She’d make a big pot of cioppino and we’d all cram around the table. The seafood stew was full of things others would’ve considered bait: squid, clams, salt cod and a little crab. So it was cheap to make. Not so much now. These days, there’s no such thing as a cheap cut.
But my grandma’s cioppino still makes frequent appearances on special occasions (or when seafood goes on sale — my grandma would be proud!). And my kids, like me, are growing up knowing the joy of a bowl full of clamshell castanets and crab-claw pirate hooks.
My dad began riffing on her recipe about 10 years ago, serving it up whenever we’d come for a visit. He gave me the recipe a few years back and I’ve added my own take – a little more of this, a little less of that. I can make the base entirely of pantry staples and add whatever seafood I like just before serving. The soup is easy and flexible – and, like the woman who first made it for us, nothing short of wonderful.
Centoni Family Cioppino
Makes 6 servings
If you boil your own crabs, or at least clean them yourself, you can reserve some of the crab “butter” to stir into the soup base, like my dad does. You can also mix and match the seafood to use whatever you like. Don’t confuse Spanish chorizo, which is firm and shelf-stable, with soft, fresh Mexican chorizo. If you can’t find Spanish chorizo, use a hotlinks.
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
½ pound Spanish chorizo, diced
1 large onion, diced
3 tablespoons tomato paste
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup dry white wine
4 cups fish stock (I prefer to use 5 teaspoons concentrated lobster base, such as Better than Bouillon, and 4 cups water)
8 ounces clam juice
1 (28-ounce) can whole plum tomatoes
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
½ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 bay leaves
1 pound clams, scrubbed (see note)
1 pound mussels, scrubbed and debearded (see note)
¼ pound calamari rings and tentacles
1 pound firm white fish, such as halibut or cod, cut into large chunks
½ pound uncooked (16/20 count) shrimp
1 (2 to 3 pound) cooked and cleaned Dungeness crab, legs removed and cracked, body quartered
Place a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add the fennel seeds and toast, stirring occasionally, until fragrant and beginning to color. About 2 minutes. Transfer to a spice grinder or mortar and pestle and grind to a powder.
Return the pot to the heat and add the olive oil. Add the diced chorizo and sauté until fat renders and it begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the onions and sauté until translucent. Push the onions and chorizo to one side and add the tomato paste. Cook the paste until it begins to darken, about 2 minutes. Stir into the onions. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute more.
Add the white wine to deglaze the pan, scrapping up all the browned bits. Pour in the fish stock and clam juice. Add the plum tomatoes, squeezing each with your hand to crush it as you add it to the pot, along with the juice. Add ground toasted fennel, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, allspice, parsley and bay leaves. Cover, bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce to a simmer. Allow to gently simmer for at least 30 minutes. (Cioppino base can be made a day ahead.)
When ready to serve, bring the base to a strong simmer over medium-high heat. Add the clams and mussels and cover the pot. Allow to simmer until shells have begun to open, about 5 minutes. Add the calamari, fish and shrimp and simmer until each is opaque throughout, about 5 minutes more. Check for any clams and mussels that aren’t completely open and remove. Add the crab legs and body and and heat through, about 2 minutes.
Divide cioppino among bowls and serve with crusty bread and salad.
Note: If your clams are wild, you’ll need to soak them in water for 30 minutes to an hour to encourage them to spit out their sand. Most supermarket clams are farmed, though, so you can skip this step. To debeard mussels, look for whisker-like strands hanging out between the shells, then just grab and pull until they come out. Discard any clams or mussels with chipped shells or that gape open and don’t close when you tap them. Also discard any that don’t open after cooking.