Cioppino with Fennel and Saffron {A Collaboration}

This traditional San Francisco recipe for seafood stew in tomato broth gets an update with fennel, saffron, a glug of wine, and plenty of olive oil, and it makes enough to feed a crowd.

*Many thanks to Richard Dawes Fine Wine for sponsoring The Bojon Gourmet this month! Check out his killer selection here.*

I rarely cook seafood at home due to my extreme squeamishness. This dislike of handling raw, formerly-living critters developed while working at my first restaurant job. I was 17, on summer break, when a French chef at a restaurant down the street from us gave me a job as a pantry cook. 

I would come in every day, check the inventory, and begin prepping for the day’s salads and cold appetizers. Most of my tasks were simple: wash and chop romaine, make croutons, cut vegetables, emulsify dressings. Some days, I also got to bake bread – individual buns filled with garlic and rosemary and leavened with fresh yeast. Others, I learned to make crème brulée, tiramisù and fresh pasta. Service would start and my day would become a frenzy of salads tossed with various dressings in large bowls. I left each day coated in oil and reeking of vinegar.

All of which I didn’t mind one bit. I LOVED my job. I thought it was the coolest job anyone could have ever. (Particularly when the bartender would swap me a piña colada for a slice of cheesecake, or the cooks would slip me an order of lobster ravioli.)

What I did not love was the shrimp.

Seafood Louie salads sold like hotcakes and it was my job every day to blanch a vat of jumbo shrimp, rip off their little legs, and devein them. I HATED ripping the legs off the shrimp. I imagined hearing their little shrieks of anguish, and with each pull I would be awash with crippling guilt. The shrimp may have been long gone, but I was dying a slow death on the inside.

One night, I made a critical error. It was my first Friday night working alone and the restaurant was packed. Orders started pouring in and when I opened the cooler to make a louie salad, my hand stopped short. I had forgotten to cook the shrimp.

In a blind frenzy, I threw a pot of water on the burner and cranked up the heat. I tore through the freezer and found only a bag of cooked, peeled shrimp. I dumped them in the boiling water and went back to making salads. My chef walked into my station, saw the cooked shrimp boiling away, and turned puce with rage.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOINGGGG???!!!” he screamed in his thick Southern French accent that I could barely understand.

I don’t really remember what happened after that. I didn’t get fired. I didn’t cry. I probably made a lot of salads and went home to get high with my bad-news high school boyfriend while listening to Radiohead.

But I do remember that that was the last time I ever cooked shrimp.

So when my dear friend Ana suggested making cioppino together the other day, I hesitated. In addition to my own shrimp baggage, Jay, a recovering vegetarian, is also squeamish about seafood. At home we rarely venture beyond smoked salmon on morning toast. But I love a bowl of brothy cioppino, which Ana informed me was invented not in Italy but in our very own San Francisco back in the day. I enjoyed a superb version years ago at a long-gone restaurant in Santa Cruz which involved saffron and fennel in the broth and a chunk of crusty bread served to the side. We set about to recreate it.

Using this version from Simply Recipes as our guide, we wandered down the street to our local Whole Foods and loaded up the cart with clams, mussels, fish, stock ingredients, a bottle of wine and a sour batard. In the seafood aisle, the shrimp waved to me with their little feet. I recalled the ripping sound they would make and winced. But then Ana said, “These are the ones I got last time,” and gestured to a pile of peeled, cooked shrimp. Salvation.

Back at home we sauteed, steamed and simmered between clicks of the camera. I was slightly terrified of working with shellfish, but the process surprised me by being stupid easy. The clams and mussels took minutes to steam open, the fish was simply cut into chunks and added to the soup base to cook briefly, and the shrimp took only the effort of being dropped into the pot of simmering soup to heat through. Little did I know how fun it would be to work with and photograph these new shapes and textures.

Ana has an eye for detail and is one of the most fun, sweet, creative, and upbeat people I’ve ever met. She styled these shots in ways I never would have thought, and I’m kind of in love with the results. We were particularly thrilled to sit down after a long afternoon of cooking to bowls brimming with saffron-kissed broth, tender shellfish, pepper, herbs, and all manner of other good things.

This cioppino is deceptively simple to make, and the result is a giant pot of bright and beautiful seafoody goodness.

Many thanks to Ana of Fluxi on Tour for the super (ha!) fun day! You can read her account of our collaboration and find out more about the history of cioppino here.

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Super soups:
Vegetarian Miso Ramen with Rice Noodles, Sweet Potato, and Broccolini {gluten-free}
Roasted Yellow Tomato Soup with Green Harissa and Halloumi Croutons
Miso and Soba Noodle Soup with Sriracha Roasted Tofu and Shiitake Mushrooms
One year ago:
Roasted Sweet Potato and Quinoa Salad with Chile and Lime
Two years ago:
Nettle Pesto Pasta with Sun-Dried Tomatoes 
Pink Grapefruit Vieux Mot Cocktail
Three years ago:
Winter Vegetable Noodle Curry
Four years ago:
Butterscotch Pudding
Five years ago:
Citrus Cornmeal Pound Cake

Cioppino with Fennel and Saffron

Adapted from Simply Recipes

Feel free to mix up the seafood here. We liked this combination, but you could also use lobster, crab, or other fish such as halibut or cod. Be sure to serve this with a bottle of wine and some crusty bread for mopping up the broth. 

Makes 8-10 servings

1 pound (450 grams) raw clams in their shells
1 pound (450 grams) raw mussels in their shells
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for finishing the soup
1/4 teaspoon gently packed saffron threads, crumbled
a handful of fresh thyme sprigs
1 large onion, peeled, halved, and thinly sliced
1 large fennel bulb, fronds removed and reserved for garnish, bulb thinly sliced
3 large cloves garlic
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes
2 cups dry white wine (such as Sauvignon Blanc)
broth from cooking the clams and mussels (see below)
2 cups vegetable stock
1 bay leaf
1/2 pound (225 grams) cooked, peeled shrimp
1 pound (450 grams) white fish (such as Tilapia), cut into 1-inch chunks
a handful of parsley leaves and fennel fronds
cracked black pepper
lemon wedges

Place the clams and mussels in a steamer basket set in a pot over 2 cups of water. Cover and bring to a simmer, steaming the mollusks until they open. Remove the mollusks and strain and reserve the broth.

In a large soup pot, heat the oil and saffron over a medium flame until the oil shimmers, then add the thyme, onion, and fennel. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is tender, 10 minutes, then stir in the garlic, cook for 1 minute, and add the salt, tomatoes, white wine, mollusk steaming water, vegetable stock, and bay leaf. Bring the soup to a simmer and cook, partially covered, for 20 minutes.

Add the fish and continue to simmer until cooked through, 3-5 minutes. Add the shrimp, mussels, and clams and cook to heat them through. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt if you feel the soup needs it.

Ladle the soup into wide bowls and top with a good drizzle of olive oil, a shower of parsley leaves and fennel fronds, a few turns of black pepper, and a squeeze of lemon.

Leftover soup keeps well, refrigerated airtight, for up to 2 days.

37 thoughts on “Cioppino with Fennel and Saffron {A Collaboration}”

  1. You must try the cioppino at Tadich Grill! The soup & the old school restaurant service is solid every time. You'll love it! I must say this is one of those dishes I love to order but am intimidated to make. Your story & photos are beautiful. Working alongside Ana certainly must be a dream. She's so creative & generous. Thanks for sharing this wonderful post!

    1. Ana is THE BEST. I feel SO lucky to know such a kind, creative, down-to-earth gal. :) Thanks for the tip – I'll definitely get myself to Tadich Grill. Yum!

  2. Your story made me smile and although I am not at all squeamish, in fact l like to tear shrimp's tails and hear a little pop each time, I spent a year in the Philippines with a friend who would almost faint at the sight of raw meat or seafood, which was everywhere! I observed her with curiosity and very little understanding at the time. Now, this cioppino looks off the charts stunning, my friend! I love the addition of saffron, it just makes everything warmer and happier. Gorgeous photos and lovely recipe, Alanna!

  3. Haha, I feel you about the seafood! I always buy the peeled shrimp and I'm fine with those, but the idea of buying seafood that's still alive makes me feel bad because I'm the one killing it. Would be worth it for this, I think, though!

  4. I enjoyed so much reading this post (laughed out loud when reading your shrimps story!) and loved, loved the photos and styling, so beautiful!

  5. This stew looks gorgeous. And I can totally relate as I'm also a bit squeamish about seafood too. And also used to work in a French restaurant and hated when I had to cut the big bloodline out of a fish fillet or any other number of semi-gross tasks!

  6. There is so much that I love about this post. I mean.. I can feel your anguish when it comes to cleaning shrimp. :) These photos and the recipe are killer.

  7. I can practically hear the sound of those shrimp legs!! I enjoy seafood, but also get squeamish about it, especially shellfish. I can't really handle eating lobster from the shell at all…the serving dish is ITS OWN BODY. Anyway, weirndess aside, I love ciopinno! It's probably one of my moms favorite dishes and it's so delicious.

  8. This looks amazing Alanna! I'm making it this Saturday for my Mom and I for our Valentines Day dinner, which is exactly what we need in snowy Edmonton!

  9. I looked up a number of Cioppino recipes and decided on yours because I love saffron. I followed it exactly and unfortunately felt it needed more flavor. I enjoy cooking and entertain in our home regularly; most who come to enjoy a home cooked meal will say I am a fairly decent amateur chef. I ended up adding oregano, and more fresh thyme, red pepper flakes, and, not wanting to feel defeated, I was left with no choice but to pull out the Old Bay seasoning; a dash of that and finally, the taste I was looking for. Your recipe was a good base to start from, so for that I thank you. I look forward to trying some of your other recipes.

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