San Francisco: Catching Crabs, Eating Clams
Ah! The fog, cold, and rain are back!
Were you guys able to enjoy the little sunny break we had? If not, you're SOL until May.
Welcome to springtime in San Francisco. We have a few gorgeous days at the beginning of March and then we get hit with a few weeks of ugly, I mean ugly, weather in April. You've really got to get out and enjoy the good stuff while it lasts.
A word to the wise – don't waste the good days in the city by staying indoors. My coworker just had a friend come out to visit from Ohio for a week. Not only did her guest not want to go out at night, but she also spent the majority of her time sleeping until 3 PM. What a waste.
Maybe some people see nothing wrong with sleeping their lives away – and I can't say I blame them. Apparently these people also care nothing about looking like they've got a lick of fashion sense when stepping out to a nice restaurant or social event. However, take heed: this town is no place to sleep in late, especially on sunny days. Nor is it okay to go clubbing in one of your gem sweaters, unless of course you're Leslie Hall and you're glamorous (I know I am)!
This is still the City That Knows How.
And on cold, foggy days, this is the city that knows how to keep itself warm, happy, and satisfied with a big bowl of steaming hot, mildly spicy cioppino.
Forget Rice-A-Roni; what San Franciscan you know eats that stuff? Cioppino is the original and authentic San Francisco Treat. A thick, hearty tomato-based seafood stew chock full of Dungeness crab, clams, Pacific cod, shrimp, and whatever happens to be fresh that day. This dish is old school – no doubt old school SF Italian– but San Franciscan through and through. The only accompaniment you need with a bowl of cioppino is a huge hunk of crusty sourdough bread and you have a complete, rib-stickin' meal.
Cioppino ("ch-pee-no") is truly a Made In San Francisco dish. Like most things uniquely San Franciscan, it's a transplant – brought over by Genoese fishermen and adapted to the Bay Area's unique and local ingredients. These Italian fishermen dominated the fishing trade (thanks to laws they passed which pushed the Chinese fishermen further upshore) in the late 1800s, when Fisherman's Wharf was the site of a fishy-smelling gold rush of sorts.
One of these immigrants from Genoa went on to start the Bank of Italy, which managed the fortunes of those fishermen and by shear luck, survived the Great Fire and Earthquake of 1906. Because of such, the bank grew leaps and bounds and is today known to most San Franciscans as the mega-evil Bank of America.
I'm fond of cioppino because it's a crazy delicious seafood stew, but also because it's one of the first dishes I ate where I knew, sitting there in front me, was something unique to my newly adopted home (this was a couple of years after I moved to the Bay Area). My first and, as far as I know, only experience eating cioppino was/is Bruce's homemade cioppino. Bruce isn't Italian, but he could play one on TV and no one would ever know the difference (he also gets mistaken for being both Jewish and Muslim, which is dangerous no matter which side of the Wall you live on). He's actually part Portuguese, part Greek, and part honky – which, oddly enough, describes a lot of Southern European/Mediterranean ethnicities. I'm pure honky, which as most people know, isn't very pure at all; especially those Southern honky varieties. Oh, where does the time go?
Although cioppino's hella expensive to make, lately I've felt that I needed to hunker down and start writing about this great place I live in, and I wanted to start with a dish that is near and dear to my heart. I know you guys read a lot of blogs out there; I read a few as well. One of the things I hope to get when I click on a food blog from, say, Washington DC or Cleveland is a feel for the place the author lives in – you know, living vicariously through someone else's eyes, ears, stomach, and so on, so on, etc.
Sometimes I don't think that happens enough with Bay Area food bloggers, most especially: yours truly. Hell, I don't think that happens enough with food bloggers in general, although that guy over at The New Diner certainly has something special going on (I just wish he would start writing again). That's why for the next month or so I'll be focusing more on San Francisco and SF Bay Area "stuff" here at Bacon Press.
WARNING: THE FOLLOWING RECIPE CONTAINS INSTRUCTIONS AND PHOTOS ON KILLING LIVE CRUSTACEANS.
Crab Cioppino Treganza A la Bacon Press 2007
Serves 2 for roughly a week (or 6 to 8 at once)
Okay, I know this is a lot of food to make but cioppino is one of those stews that you just have to make a lot of and hope to hell you have friends and neighbors who are okay with coming over to eat and taking some home with them. Could you cut this recipe in half? Probably. Will I? Probably not.
I can eat lunch for free all this week just on cioppino leftovers alone. And how many of your coworkers do that? Not many. I know – I asked.
First you should know this: the recipe for cioppino isn't written in stone. There are variations depending on who you ask, what their preference is, and what type of fish or shellfish is in season. Dungeness crab is a given. So is the tomato-based sauce. From there, you're pretty much free to improvise with the seafood and the consistency and flavor of your sauce. I've seen premade jars of cioppino sauce for sale in certain supermarkets. Perhaps some of them are worth trying? I don't know. But before you waste $50 - $60 worth of seafood on a $5 jar of sauce, you better test it first.
The recipe I'm using is not Bruce's. It's from an out-of-print cookbook called San Francisco Firehouse Favorites, published in 1965. Despite its age and the era it was written in (still fresh on the heels of bad 1950s cuisine), it has some remarkably good recipes contributed by – wait for it – real San Francisco firefighters. I'll talk more about the book in a future post, but for now I present you with the recipe submitted by SFFD Art Treganza, Airport Rescue Company No. 3, and slightly modified by me.
5 medium-sized leeks, thinly sliced
6 large celery stalks, finely chopped or sliced
6 medium-sized carrots, finely chopped or sliced
1 ½ cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 large 28-ounce can chopped tomatoes
1 tablespoon dry thyme
2 – 3 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
2 – 3 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
2 live dungeness crabs
2 pounds of clams, well scrubbed
1 pound of medium prawns, raw (with or without shells)
2 pounds of Pacific cod (or similar white fish) fillets
½ cup of dry white wine
1 tablespoon of pepper, freshly ground
Salt to taste
(not included here: 2 to 4 tablespoons tomato paste)
Dungeness crab season in the Bay Area lasts between November and June, peaking sometime in January. When buying a crab, note that one typically weighs between 2 to 3 pounds and should look lively (even frisky) and have all or most of it's legs. Also take note of its tank environment, inspecting it for cleanliness. Buying live crab ensures that you're getting the freshest meat available, as crab meat quickly deteriorates after death. I bought my live crabs at Ranch 99 in Daly City for $5 per pound. This is a great price for live Dungeness crab. On the flip side, cooked Dungeness crab at Mollie Stones sells for $8 per pound, or basically the price you pay for having someone else do the dirty work for you.
I also bought my clams (you can use any kind) at Ranch for $4 per pound. When buying clams, make sure the shells are completely closed, unless you see the actual clam moving about. Open shells with no movement means the clam is dead.
When you get home, fill up a large container for both the crabs and the clams and pour in enough Kosher salt so that the water tastes like the ocean. Do this hours before you begin cooking and carefully place the crabs and clams in each. Warning: crabs are dangerous to a certain extent, so always use a pair of tongs when handling them.
Also be sure to cover the container the crabs are in – it's possible they could climb out. By placing the clams and crabs in water this way, you not only keep them alive longer but some of the impurities from the previous tank they were in is potentially flushed away.
Now lets make the cioppino sauce!
In a large, heavy bottomed pot (at least 12 quarts) add olive oil and heat on medium high until hot. Then add the onions, celery, and carrots. Increase heat to high and cook, stirring frequently until mixture has cooked down significantly. Next add the chopped garlic and 1 cup of the parsley and stir for another minute or two.
Next, add the 2 cans of chopped tomatoes. Alert: product placement! I use Muir Glen organic chopped tomatoes as I find it's the best canned tomato product to cook with (oh, how I wish they paid me!) After adding the tomatoes, fill up both cans with H2O and add the water to the pot. Also: add the herbs and pepper (optional: you could also add chopped chili pepper flakes for that extra wowee).
Stir glamorously and then reduce to a simmer. Cover and let simmer for an hour and a half.
Let's revisit those crabs, shall we? First, friends, we must discuss this killing business.
Frankly, it's unavoidable in this situation – so how best to do it if it really bothers you? And actually, if it bothers you then I'm glad to have you as a reader because I think it should bother you. It bothers me. Part of being human is that we are hard-wired to empathize with the suffering of other living things. If we, through whatever method or reason, become incapable of feeling the pain of others, then we are truly denying our magnificient potential as human beings, and that's not healthy or sane. To feel for others is natural, it's instinctual, and it's part of this grand evolution to which we belong.
But we do have to eat, and we – in this case – are not vegetarians. The best way to minimize the suffering of the crab is to anesthetize it and then kill it quickly. This can be done first by taking the crabs from the holding tank (or the container you've used up to this point) and placing them in the freezer (Harold McGee suggest using ice water). Here I've placed them in a cloth sack and tied the top. Once I've gotten them in the bag and have it placed in the freezer, I keep them in there for at least an hour.
You may be surprised when, even after an hour, you take them out and they are still moving. Crabs are able to tolerate the cold waters of the Pacific – your freezer is only slightly colder. The cold forces the crab into a semi-dormancy and dulls its pain receptors. This, however, doesn't kill the crab.
To quickly kill it, turn it on its back while still using the tongs to hold it. On its belly, there is a triangular flap that points towards the crab's head. Lift the flap back and hold it down (you may need two people to do this). Towards the top of where the flap was, there is a small indentation.
Using a small screwdriver (or chopstick) and with a good whack, penetrate the crab's body until you hit the other side, but without going through the shell. Now quickly jack the handle back so that the tip of the screwdriver is towards the front of the crab. This kills the crab.
Afterwards, turns the crab over a sink so that the body drains its retained water and fluids. It's now ready to cook.
First, add the crab to the cioppino sauce and then add the clams which you have scrubbed and drained. Bring back to a simmer and cook, covered, for 30 minutes.
When the crab is cooked, remove it and add the cod and prawns to the pot. Cook, covered, an additional 10 minutes on simmer. While that's cooking, pull off the crab legs and reserve to a bowl.
The crab (obviously) will be hot, so careful not to burn yourself. However, this can be done without doing so. After you've removed the legs, clean the body of the crab by separating the upper and lower halves of the crab. Once you've pulled off the top, discard the top shell and wash out the yellow "crab butter". Pull out the lungs and discard them as well. Next, pull out the crab meat from the body and add to the bowl containing the legs.
When the cod and prawns have finished cooking, add the crab back to the pot - plus the wine- and simmer another 5 minutes.
We're done, people.
All that's left is to ladle into bowls and sprinkle with parsley (if you like). Of course, don't leave out the bread! Acme Sour Batard is the best fucking sourdough in San Francisco so you better go grab you a loaf.
One last thing: this stew came out a little more "vegetable-ly" than I prefer. It really should have more of a pronounced tomato flavor. So, right before you add the seafood, I suggest adding a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste to beef up the tomato flavor. Also, a little heat in this stew would go a long way, so feel free to add some cayenne or chili flakes to the sauce.
Hey! And there you have it!
San Francisco Cioppino! Straight from an old San Franciscan and written by a new-ish one.
If you aren't able to make this at home - or live too far from one of the many regular cioppino feeds - you could always take the next plane to SFO – only I'm pretty sure Art Treganza won't be there to greet you. And of course, you would have my high expectations to live up to.
I'd be so disappointed if you came out here and slept the whole time!