Fish soup is as essential to French cuisine as gumbo is to French Louisiana. I love the flavors of briny stock-infused shellfish and finfish swimming in a bowl of herbs and vegetables. In my younger years, I once traveled the length of France searching for the perfect soupe de poisson, and two weeks later I discovered it in a bowl of bouillabaisse along the Mediterranean just outside of Cannes (I’ll save that for another story).
Some dozen or so years ago, my love of fish soup took a different, and unexpected, turn during a visit to San Francisco, and it wasn’t French in any way. It was a piquant, tomato-infused bowl of cioppino, spiked with wine and chock full of Pacific seafood. It’s a signature dish of the “city by the bay” introduced by Italian immigrants in the late 1800s. I’ve had different versions: Some are a messy, shell-cracking experience akin to a South Louisiana crab boil where you need an arsenal of utensils to do culinary combat, and others are a more gentrified, spoon-in-hand version. I love them both.
It was at Postrio, a Wolfgang Puck restaurant just off Union Square, that I devoured a taste of a perfect cioppino that still lingers all these many years later. It was ethereal in its balance of sweet, briny, acidic flavors bathed in a tomato and white wine broth mingling with the clean, rich flesh of fresh halibut, Dungeness crab, clams, and mussels. And the crusty crunch of toasted sourdough underscored it all.
Over the years, I have obsessed (as I am inclined to do) over that dish, and in my mind, I made a culinary connection between those tastes and flavors to my Creole Cioppino – a Louisiana version with a Creole twist. I forgo the line-up of West Coast ingredients like saffron, fennel, and capers, and reach into my Acadiana pantry for local flavor to infuse my Creole Cioppino. Think about it: Louisiana Creole tomatoes, the Cajun holy trinity (onions, celery, and bell pepper) of vegetables, crusty French bread, and fresh Gulf coastal shrimp, oyster, blue crab, and snapper, are all the building blocks of a righteous bowl of Creole Cioppino. My fish soup recipe is as simple as it sounds, but just like its Pacific coast counterpart, it is dependent on freshness. Wherever you live, you must find a fishmonger you can trust to source the quality ingredients necessary for a truly memorable bowlful of Creole Cioppino.
As is usually the case in the life cycle of a restaurant, Postrio closed a few years back. And like a faded memory, those flavors no longer captivate me, but with my Creole Cioppino, I now have new tasty memories made closer to home. And you will, too.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 boneless fillets Gulf snapper or other firm white fish
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 cups chopped yellow onion
- 1 cup diced celery
- 1 cup diced green bell pepper
- ½ cup chopped yellow bell pepper
- ½ cup chopped red bell pepper
- ½ cup chopped tasso or smoked ham
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 4 anchovy fillets, chopped
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- ½ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 tablespoon jarred dry light roux or all-purpose flour
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 2 cups chopped ripe tomatoes, preferably Louisiana Creole tomatoes
- 1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce
- 1 (8-ounce) bottle clam juice
- 3 cups seafood stock
- 2 cleaned Louisiana blue crabs, cut in half
- 2 bay leaves
- 8 oysters (in the shell) or 8 shelled oysters
- 16 jumbo (8/10 count) shrimp, peeled, tail-on, and deveined
- 1 pound white lump crabmeat, picked over for shells and cartilage
- 1 cup crawfish tail meat
- 8 slices grilled French bread, for serving
- ½ cup diced green onion tops
- In a cast-iron pot with a heavy lid over medium-high heat, add the olive oil. Sprinkle the fish fillets lightly with salt and pepper, and add to the pot. Cook 2 minutes on the first side. Turn the fish over and cook on the other side until just done, 1 to 2 minutes depending on the thickness of your fillets. With a spatula carefully remove the fish to a platter and keep warm for later.
- In the same pot, add the onion, celery, bell peppers, and tasso to the remaining olive oil, and sauté until the onions turn translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the anchovy, thyme, oregano, parsley, red pepper flakes, and sauté for 3 minutes.
- Sprinkle the dry roux over the vegetables in the pot and stir to incorporate. Add the wine to deglaze the pot (be careful of flames), and cook off the alcohol, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, tomato sauce, clam juice, and seafood stock. Stir to combine and add the cleaned crab halves, and bay leaves. Bring to a boil and lower the heat to a simmer. Cover and cook for 30 minutes. Taste the soup and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Turn off the heat until ready to serve.
- With a towel and an oyster knife, pry open the oysters, reserving any oyster liquor inside. Discard the top shell and drain any liquor into the pot. Reserve the bottom half shell oyster, but do not loosen the meat from the shell. Keep cold until ready to serve.
- When ready to serve, reheat the pot to a simmer, add the shrimp, and cook for 3 minutes. Add the oyster half shells, crabmeat and crawfish tails to the pot. Lightly stir to incorporate the seafood into the simmering liquid. Cook for 1 minute and serve immediately.
- For serving, place a grilled French bread slice in the bottom of a large individual bowl. Add a fillet of sautéed fish to each bowl. Spoon the simmering soup over, being careful to distribute evenly the seafood among your guests. Garnish with a sprinkle of green onion tops.
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