I grew up in the Carmel/Monterey area. Like San Francisco, Monterey claims cioppino, an Italian-American tomato-based seafood stew, as its own. We would typically find it in restaurant/seafood markets, the kinds that sold clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl, and featuring the catch of the day: fish, shellfish, calamari… Everyone knew that a good cioppino was dependent upon good fresh, seafood.
Then about five years ago, while my now-husband and I enjoyed a quiet bowl of cioppino, after a day of workshops and hot tubs at Esalen, outside, overlooking the Pacific, I had an epiphany. Was it the breathtaking setting that made this the best bowl ever? Was it a full day of healing hot springs and life changing work? Maaaaayybe. But I concluded it was fresh vegetables!
Esalen, an institute in Big Sur, was founded by hippies 50 years ago to foster the “human potential.” Before that, it was a hotel, frequented by Henry Miller, and Hunter S. Thompson was a not so reliable employee. As early as 2600 BC, the land was home to the Esselen Indians and revered for the sacred hot springs, located on the edge of dramatic cliffs above the Pacific Ocean.
When I was growing up, my dad often took my sisters and I to the pool and hot springs. We would walk in the back entrance, acting like we owned the place, a technique he perfected, whether it was the “clothing optional” Esalen pools or the Four Seasons.
Today, the only way to stay there is to sign up for a workshop (or personal retreat). It is pricey, but oh, so worth it. In my opinion, one of the highlights of the experience is the food. Almost all of the produce is grown there on the grounds. Their practices of biodynamics and permaculture, self-sustaining and organic, have greatly influenced the way Papa Bird and I approach our own home garden.
Tasting and analyzing that satisfying cioppino, I was confident that all of the tomatoes and vegetables came from their garden, a few hundred feet from the kitchen. Disgustingly fresh. I’m willing to bet the fish markets used canned tomatoes or paste. My cioppino epiphany? The freshness and quality of the vegetables is as much as, or more, important as the freshness of the seafood.
Like my Spanish Stuffed Peppers, this recipe is only an approximation based on tasting, but we enjoy it! We love it served with crusty garlic bread, although sourdough is traditional, and by skipping the bread, it makes a great gluten-free, paleo or low-carb entrée.
Cioppino Recipe – Inspired by the Esalen Kitchen, Farm and Garden
- 1 Tablespoon olive oil
- 1-2 onion, chopped
- 1 cup chopped celery and/or fennel
- 1 red bell pepper and/or carrot, chopped
- 4-5 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper, cayenne, paprika and/or chili powder
- 1 cup of white wine
- 4 large fresh heirloom tomatoes, peeled and chopped, or a 28 oz. can
- 2 Tablespoons double concentrated tomato paste or 1 small can of tomato paste
- 3-4 cups of clam juice, seafood broth and/or chicken broth
- 1-2 bay leaf
- fresh (or dried) thyme, basil, oregano and/or parsley
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1-2 pounds fresh or high quality frozen seafood such as calamari, scallops, shrimp, etc
- 1 pound white fish, such as halibut, tilapia or cod
- 1/2 pound fresh, debearded and scrubbed mussels
In a large soup pot over medium heat, sauté the onion in the oil, followed by the celery, fennel, carrot and bell pepper. Once softened, add the garlic and spices and sauté a minute. Add the white wine and cook off alcohol for a minute. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, clam juice/broth, bay leaf and herbs. Bring up to a boil and then down to a simmer, for at least 10-15 minutes. Adjust the salt and pepper. (I find that I don’t need to add much salt when using clam juice.)
(It can simmer for longer at this point if you would like to make it ahead, and then add the the seafood just before eating.) Bring back up to a low boil and add the seafood and fish. If using frozen seafood, add them frozen, do not defrost. Cover with a lid and cook for 2-4 minutes until mussels open and seafood is cooked.
Some thoughts on seasonality: Really this dish is at its peak in the late summer when tomatoes shine. Check out my post on freezing summer tomatoes for use throughout the year. We were craving this dish this winter, so enjoy anytime.
On the seafood: Crab is classic in San Francisco. In San Diego we have access to good, sustainable mussels. Use whatever is available and that you like! For advice on sustainable seafood, I love the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch and use their iPhone app.