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Cioppino

In a recent episode of Stanley Tucci’s “Searching For Italy,” when he was on the Tuscan coast that borders Liguria, he ate a seafood stew called cacciucco, prepared by chef Fabbio Picchi, who owns the restaurant Cibreo in Florence. Picchi followed the cacciucco with a pasta dish tossed in the leftover sauce after the seafood had been polished off. Here I am, chatting with Picchi on a trip to Florence when travel to Italy was relatively easy.

The dishes he prepared and that show in general, had me dreaming about going back to Italy. Since that’s not possible in this pandemic, I had to do the next best thing — cook something like it at home that might transport me for a little while to la bell’Italia. Having just returned from a vacation in the Caribbean where I ate seafood every day, I felt driven to keep up the seafood vibe and decided to make cioppino – an Italian American seafood dish with origins in San Francisco that is similar to cacciucco. So many cultures have versions of seafood stews, and aside from cacciucco, Italy also lays claim to brodetto, a fish stew from the Abruzzo region,  that’s slightly less soupy and tomato-y than cacciucco or cioppino, and is cooked in a clay vessel. I helped prepare this brodetto several years ago while on a trabocco (small wooden fishing piers that jut into the Adriatic) along Abruzzo’s coastline. To read more about trabocchi, click here.

To make the cioppino, start by softening the vegetables in olive oil — onion, garlic, celery, carrots, green pepper and some fennel.

Next add the tomatoes, white wine and seasonings. Be very generous with the basil and parsley. You can make this in a Dutch oven, or in a more shallow pan, like this one. This recipe includes seafood amounts for two very generous servings, but intentionally makes enough sauce for a whole lot more. After we scarfed down all the seafood the night I made this, there was still plenty of leftover sauce to serve over pasta the next day.

After the sauce has simmered for about aan hour, add the shellfish and the rest of the seafood. You don’t have to use the same amounts or types of seafood I did. It’s a very fluid recipe and you can substitute whatever you like and eliminate whatever seafood I’ve included that you don’t like. I used cod but haddock or halibut would be great too. The cost of all this seafood can get a little pricey, but it’s a delicious splurge and would be perfect for a Lenten Friday (or Christmas Eve).  Put the shellfish in after you’ve put the rest of the seafood in, to try to keep them from getting submerged too much and hinder their opening. Place the lid on the pot and keep it at a simmer for 15 minutes, without checking or removing the lid.

After 15 minutes, check to see if the fish is cooked through. If not, put the lid back on for a few more minutes until everything is cooked properly. Some of the clams and mussels might still be closed, so put those aside in a separate pan and place it over a low heat by itself, while you portion out the cioppino, either in the pan where you cooked it, or in a tureen, gently lifting the seafood. The cod will easily fall apart unless you use a large spoon to scoop it up whole.

Serve in bowls with crusty toasted bread, smeared with olive oil and salt, or over polenta.

I made some homemade pasta to toss with the leftover sauce. It was perfect for the next evening’s meal. If I can’t have Italy right now, at least I can have pasta and cioppino!

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Cioppino
 
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Ingredients
  • The amounts for the seafood are for two very generous servings. If you add more seafood to serve more people, you don't need to increase the amount of sauce. This recipe provides enough sauce for at least three or four more servings. In fact, after we had eaten all the seafood from the Cioppino one night, my husband and I used the leftover sauce the next day and served it over homemade pasta, and there was still plenty of sauce left in the pan that I didn't use.
  • ¼ cup minced onion
  • ¼ cup green onion, chopped
  • ¼ cup green pepper, minced
  • ¼ cup celery, minced
  • ½ of a large fennel bulb, sliced roughly
  • ½ medium carrot, peeled and shredded
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 T. olive oil
  • 1 26.46 oz. box of finely chopped tomatoes
  • 1 26.46 oz. box of strained tomatoes
  • (or use all strained tomatoes, or all finely chopped tomatoes if you prefer)
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • ½ cup water (use it to swish out any remaining bits of tomato from the tomato box, jar or cans you use).
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • a sprinkle of red pepper flakes
  • ¼ cup fresh basil, minced
  • ¼ cup fresh parsley, minced
  • ½ pound halibut, cod or similar fleshy white fish
  • ½ pound fresh shrimp
  • ½ pound fresh scallops
  • 6 squid bodies, cut into "rings"
  • a dozen mussels
  • a dozen and a half clams
Instructions
  1. Sauté onion, green onion, green pepper, celery, carrot, fennel and garlic in olive oil in a large Dutch oven or pan until limp.
  2. Stir in the tomatoes, tomato sauce, basil, bay leaf, parsley, salt, black pepper and red pepper flakes.
  3. Heat to boiling and add the white wine.
  4. Reduce heat to a simmer.
  5. Simmer one hour, then discard the bay leaf.
  6. Cut the cod, or whatever white fish you're using, into two large pieces.
  7. Scrub the clams and mussels thoroughly, removing any "beard" from the mussels.
  8. Cut the squid into rings, and shell and devein the shrimp.
  9. Add the clams and the mussels to the pan, then add the rest of the seafood to the tomato sauce -- the squid, the shrimp, the scallops and the cod.
  10. Put the lid on and let everything cook together at a simmer for 15 minutes, WITHOUT STIRRING and WITHOUT LIFTING THE LID.
  11. If you stir, you will break up the codfish, which flakes apart easily when cooked.
  12. Check it after 15 minutes and if the fish is all cooked, serve the cioppino in the pan you cooked it, or remove it gently to a serving tureen.
  13. If some of the shellfish haven't opened, let them continue cooking in a separate pot, which should take only a few more minutes.
  14. Sprinkle with parsley and serve in bowls with plenty of toasted crusty bread smeared with olive oil and salt, or over polenta.
 

 

 

Cibreo’s Yellow Pepper Soup

 Years ago when my daughter was studying in Florence, I had a transformative dining experience there. I ate at Cibrèo. That first dinner at Cibrèo stayed with me forever, so when my brother-in-law and sister-in-law invited me to be their guests at a villa in Florence this month, I knew Cibrèo also had to be in my future. 

After eating dinner at Cibrèo twice in the last two weeks, I’m happy to report that the food is just as good as ever.  But you don’t have to fly to Florence to savor one of Cibrèo’s signature dishes. Just make the recipe at the end of this post.
In a one-block corner of the city, you’ll find several Cibrèo eateries, including the fancy, linen-tablecloth Cibrèo restaurant. Dine there if you want to go more upscale. But to eat the same food at half the price, in a more casual setting, go to the Cibrèo trattoria across the street. No reservations taken, so it’s best to line up twenty minutes before it opens at 7 to get a seat. Because it’s small and it’s not exactly a secret.
There’s nary a pasta dish or pizza on the menu, but what does come out of the kitchen can only be described as divine, including their yellow pepper soup, or passata di peperoni gialli.
 If silk and sunshine were edible, this is how it would be done.
Start the evening at the Cibrèo cafe with a glass of prosecco or an Aperol spritz, to get you ready for the main event.  Maybe you’d prefer to spend the evening at the Cibrèo dinner theater, where it helps to know Italian.
Fabbio Picchi is the mastermind behind all these delicious eateries, and you’ll see him constantly scurrying back and forth among diners to make sure everything remains to his high standards.
 I have to confess when I showed him photos from my recent preparation of his yellow pepper soup, he scolded me because I had roasted and peeled the peppers, instead of running them through a food mill  to separate the skins from the pulp. Italians frequently use this tool (a mouli) when making tomato sauce too.

 But since I don’t own one, I roasted the peppers and peeled the skin. Sorry Fabio.

The soup was just as good as what I remembered eating at Cibrèo, even if I adapted the recipe to suit my lack of a mouli. It freezes beautifully too, so you can stockpile some for when company’s arriving, or when you’ve got a busy day and don’t have time to cook. A little heavy cream makes it luxurious.

Everything on the menu at Cibrèo is really special.

The polenta is one of my favorites. I don’t how they manage to get it so soft and creamy. I just know I had to have it, with its dribble of olive oil and scattering of parmigiano on top. So I did. I would happily eat this for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

This ricotta and potato sformato was pretty darn special too, served with a rich ragù on the side.
And who’d have thought that crab soup would be a specialty you’d crave in Florence? Well, take my word for it, it may look drab, but any other crab soup you’ve had will pale beside this intensely flavored version.  
The main courses were equally delicious, including this casserole of sausages and beans – a classic Tuscan dish.

The roast pork loin with potatoes and spinach looked delicious too, but the one criticism was that it was served at room temperature.

I have to confess the stuffed chicken neck (replete with chicken head in the presentation) didn’t sound too appealing, but it tasted like a very good chicken paté. Be prepared – so much of the food at Cibrèo is mousse-like in texture.

But I couldn’t say no when I heard that stuffed rabbit was one of the night’s specials – with sweet cipolline onions on the side. It was tender, flavorful and I would order it again in a heartbeat. Actually, I did order again on my second visit in two weeks.

The desserts were also every bit as delicious as I remembered. The cheesecake smeared with orange marmalade was a standout.
But then again, so was the cream-filled tart topped with the tiny strawberries (fragoline) that are a specialty in Italy this time of year.
But this was the dessert I had been dreaming about since my last visit – a coffee flavored bavarian cream smothered in dark chocolate. One bite and you’re in la-la land. It’s light and luscious and rich all at the same time.
I didn’t think Cibrèo could top that, a new dessert on the menu comes close – a vanilla bavarian cream served with a puddle of reduced, sweet grape must called saba.  Now I’ve got a real problem. What to order for dessert next time?
Cibreo’s Yellow Pepper Soup
Total time: 45 minutes
1 red onion
1 carrot
1 stalk celery
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 yellow peppers (I used 3 and roasted them, then peeled them)
4 medium-size potatoes (I used 1 large and it was plenty)
2 cups water or chicken stock
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 glass of milk (It’s good with just milk, but use heavy cream if you want a really rich taste)
2 bay leaves
Homemade croutons to garnish.
1. Chop onion, carrot and celery. Fry them in olive oil until golden in a heavy casserole large enough to hold all the vegetables.
2. Devein and chop peppers. (I roasted the peppers and peeled them, then added them to the blender along with the other cooked vegetables) Peel and chop potatoes. Add to casserole along with about two cups of water or stock (or half water and half stock), enough to cover vegetables. Lightly season with salt and pepper. Simmer 20 to 25 minutes.
3. Pass the vegetables through a shredder or a Mouli to remove skins. Puree in a blender or food processor. (After soup has been liquified, it should not be boiled again or it will lose its color and taste).
4. Return soup to heat and add milk, which will remove any remaining acidity in the peppers and give the soup a smoother consistency. Add bay leaves. Heat through without boiling. Correct seasoning and remove from heat.
5. Take out the bay leaves. Serve soup in heated individual bowls garnished with croutons. If you need to reheat the soup, heat it in a double boiler.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.