Last Updated on February 24, 2021
Cooking a cioppino with frozen shellfish from The Berwick Shellfish Co.
The British shellfish industry is in the news at the moment for all the wrong reasons. Hit by a double whammy of restaurants closed due to Covid-19 plus the shambles of Brexit that has seen shellfish rotting when it should have been whisked over the channel to European markets, the shellfish industry is in stormy waters. The shellfish themselves may be happier to remain safely in their cosy seabeds of course, but the industry itself is much in need of support. A large proportion of British shellfish is sold abroad, and I would imagine that most of that sold domestically is taken up by the hospitality trade. (The UK is in a strange position of importing 70% of the fish we eat and exporting 80% of what is caught). Much as I love shellfish, I don’t usually buy and cook it at home except if on holiday at the coast (usually abroad to be honest) or for Valentine’s Day when scallops are often sautéed by my husband. I would probably cook shellfish more often if I had easy access. My local fishmonger doesn’t sell any and the supermarket selections often seem overpriced and overpackaged.
Recently I have become aware of schemes where consumers can order shellfish online for next day delivery and I certainly hope to make more use of this convenient method of purchase. One of these companies is based in Northumbria, near the Scottish borders, with boats fishing in both Scottish and English waters. The Berwick Shellfish Co. has an easy to navigate online shop and sells both fresh and frozen shellfish in quantities to keep your freezer well-stocked. Shellfish will always be a luxury product and hence has the reputation of being for special occasions. Some shellfish though is not expensive – fresh mussels for one. In our major cities, we have no access to buying off the boat, so we must rely on buying from fishmongers, supermarkets or online. Frozen shellfish is certainly cheaper than the fresh variety and I thought I would give it a try.
I don’t usually use frozen shellfish – except perhaps the odd bag of prawns – and wondered whether I would be able to get the sort of texture and flavours I look for when eating it fresh. I wouldn’t expect to use the frozen variety for a plateau de fruits de mer, for example, but thought that a shellfish stew might be the right sort of dish to try. My first thought was to make a bouillabaisse, that fabulously rich French shellfish and fish stew that is ubiquitous in the south of France. Tourists know that the quality varies enormously as this dish is churned out in every restaurant lining the quays of countless harbours across the region. I prefer to make my own, selecting the freshest shellfish and fish in the market in the morning, and serving up a splendid feast in the evening. I have my favourite recipe, an amalgam of several that have coalesced over many summer holidays. In the depths of the coldest winter snap the UK has seen in 25 years, I didn’t feel in the mood for bouillabaisse.
I recalled another summer holiday, a road trip that we took in California a few years back. Due to the forest fires ablaze in Yosemite where we were supposed to be headed, we stuck to the coast and meandered slowly between Los Angeles and San Francisco. One lunchtime we found ourselves in Santa Barbara. It was a warm and windy day as we drove onto the pier that jutted out into the sea. At the end of this wooden structure was a seafood restaurant. A happy sight. Not having a reservation, we waited for a wooden picnic table on the breezy pier. As soon as one came free, we pounced on it quicker than the seagulls that were having a fine time lunching on chips stolen from surrounding tables. We perused the long menu, but I knew what I was after. Cioppino. Not so different from its French cousin, the bouillabaisse, but having Italian influences. No saffron, no orange peel, no anchovy – these are key ingredients when I prepare a bouillabaisse. Cioppino is said to have been created in San Francisco and is a rustic dish of fish and shellfish with a tomato base – the sort of stew that fishermen could cook from what they had caught.
The Santa Barbara cioppino was served in a bread bowl on a takeway plate, with no frills whatsoever. The wind blew our paper serviettes away, the seagulls hovered, we ate our cioppino with relish as we watched the waves. It was one of those happy food memories one stores for cold winter days which is perhaps why it popped into my mind as I surveyed the refrigerated box of frozen shellfish that arrived at my door from The Berwick Shellfish Co.
I have a sizeable recipe book collection but not one, not even the American books, mentioned cioppino. I turned to the internet where I found an array of recipes with quite a diverse set of preparation methods. What most had in common was a can of clam juice. Funnily enough, there is no clam juice on any of my home delivery supermarket shelves. In the end, I felt in safe hands with a recipe from Ina Garten, the doyenne of American cooking. She gave the option of making one’s own shellfish stock (in place of using clam juice) and since I had lots of shellfish, I set about doing just that. Garten uses lobster shells which I didn’t have so I substituted with crab legs of which I had a huge bag full. Soon I had a pot of the most flavoursome stock and moved on to making the soup for the cioppino. This was very easy to do and I let it cool and sit in the fridge overnight as most broths improve with a bit of time for the ingredients to really meld their flavours. The soup was really delicious with a deep tomato flavour and lovely heat from chilli flakes.
I defrosted my shellfish in the fridge overnight. The next day I simply heated the soup and then layered in tilapia fillets (I ordered a bag of frozen fillets with the shellfish, but you could use sea bass or cod instead), clams, prawns, mussels, scallops and crab legs. A 10 -minute simmer gave me time to warm a baguette in the oven. I poured into the cioppino a tablespoon of Pastis which Garten recommended and which I happened to have from a long-ago trip to France. Lunch was served.
I turned a critical eye to the cioppino to see if I could discern good texture and flavour from the frozen tilapia and shellfish. The fish was both firm and tasty, the scallops similarly. The mussels, from New Zealand, which are sold frozen but uncooked on the half shell were some of the largest I have seen. The clams were precooked, yet some were not open after being heated in the soup and I discarded these. The crab legs were also precooked, yet did not dry out in the cioppino and we cracked these open to extract the meat inside. What I missed in both mussels and clams was the liquor that they would contribute to the stew when cooked from fresh. As the fresh variety open, they give a fabulous shellfish flavour to the dish which was missing here. No doubt some clam juice would add some extra shellfish flavour, but I was pleased with the result as the frozen shellfish made the dish an affordable treat and the ingredients were easy to access.
I used the leftover frozen clams to make a shellfish pasta with linguine. Served in a creamy sauce with lots of lemon juice, it made for a satisfying supper. If I wanted to make spaghetti vongole I would use fresh clams as the dish relies on the liquor from clams as they open. I plan to bake the remaining mussels with breadcrumbs and herbs which should be a good way to make the most of frozen mussels. I still have a bag of frozen crab legs left in my freezer. I might wait for the weather to warm a little before defrosting these and setting them out with a bowl of fresh mayonnaise, fresh wholemeal bread and a couple of claw crackers. With a bottle of crisp white wine, I will dream of summer holidays which perhaps we will be able to enjoy this year, eating British shellfish on our staycation.
The Berwick Shellfish Co. has an impressive range of fish and shellfish and prices for every pocket. A bag of freshly boiled and blast frozen crab legs cost a mere £5 for 1kg which equates to 30-40 large male crab legs. There are seafood platters to order, fresh or frozen fish, live crabs, oysters, periwinkles, live or fresh or dressed lobster, hampers, smoked fish and more. The world is your oyster one might say. There’s certainly plenty of options for making a Cioppino, which dates back perhaps as far as Gold Rush days or as recently as the 1930s and comes from fishermen originally from Genoa who immigrated to the USA and settled in the Bay area of California. Cioppino is thought to have originated from a Ligurian word ‘ciuppin’ meaning ‘chopped’ or possibly from ‘il ciuppin’ meaning little soup. Regardless, it’s a dish that owes its existence to a region rich in local seafood, so a British version made with British shellfish seems entirely appropriate.
Tomato based shellfish stew
- 60 ml olive oil
- 1 large fennel bulb, chopped keep the fronds for decorating later if you like. My bulb had no fronds.
- 1 large onion chopped
- 3 garlic cloves crushed
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes I used pul biber flakes
- 2 tins chopped tomatoes
- 950 ml seafood stock
- 350 ml dry white wine I used Pinot Grigio
- Maldon Salt
- ground black pepper
- 3 fillets firm white fish I used tilapia but you could use cod or sea bass
- 500 grams scallops
- 500 grams prawns use large ones if you can
- 12 mussels make sure they are firmly closed if using fresh
- 12 clams make sure they are firmly closed if using fresh
- 12 crab legs optional
- 1 tbsp Pernod or Pastis
- 3 tbsp flat leaf parsley chopped
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- shells from 500 grams prawns I used a handful or two of crab legs
- 100 grams onions chopped
- 2 carrots chopped
- 3 celery stalks chopped
- 2 plump garlic cloves chopped
- 120 ml dry white wine use what you will use for the stew base
- 1 small tomato paste tin
- 10 sprigs thyme
- Maldon salt and ground black pepper
To make the shellfish stock, warm olive oil in a pot - I used a medium-sized Le Creuset - and add your shellfish shells. Garten uses one pound of shrimp shells but I used two handfuls (not an exact measurement) of crab legs, chopped onion, carrot, and celery.
Cook for around 15 minutes until you get a bit of colour on the veg. Now add the garlic and cook another minute or so. You don't want the garlic to burn as it becomes bitter so add the chopped garlic once the onion has already softened.
Add 1 litre of water, the wine, thyme sprigs, tomato paste, ground black pepper and salt. Simmer for an hour.
Strain in a sieve. You should now have enough stock for the soup but if you don't you can make up the required amount with water or wine.
Begin by heating the olive oil gently and then add the chopped onion and fennel, and saute until softened.
Next, add the fennel seeds, garlic and pepper flakes. Garten's recipe calls for red pepper flakes. I had pul biber flakes which are a bit milder than some varieties of red pepper flakes. Taste as you go along to see if your soup has the right level of heat for you. Some like it hotter than others. You can always add more if you need to. Cook gently for a couple of minutes.
Add two tins of chopped tomatoes. These differ quite a bit in intensity I find and I try to use one of the Italian brands like Cirio.
Add the shellfish stock.
Add the wine, salt and pepper
Now it is a simple matter of allowing the broth to simmer away for about half an hour. I left it overnight in the fridge so that the next day I only had to add the fish and shellfish. However, this step is not necessary unless you want to get ahead.
When you are ready to eat, add the fish and shellfish to the broth, placing the fish in first, followed by the shellfish. Leave it to come to the boil and then simmer, covered, no stirring. I thought my prawns were slightly overcooked so next time I might add these a few minutes into the 8 - 10 minutes Garten recommends for the fish and shellfish to cook. My prawns were not huge - some kinds are - so be guided by the size. I used frozen shellfish which had been precooked but if you are using fresh, always discard any mussels or clams that have not opened after cooking.
Garten recommends stirring in a spoon of Pernod at this point. I found a bottle of Pastis in the back of my cupboard and used that as it has a similar aniseed flavour.
You can now garnish with a flourish of chopped flat leaf parsley.
I always use my largest Le Creuset pot for making stews as it is a generous size and I can bring this attractive dish straight to the table to serve.
I found Ina Garten's recipe on the internet and followed it as closely as I could with the ingredients I had to hand. If you have clam juice you could use that but as I did not, I made a shellfish stock based on her recipe, substituting crab legs for shrimp shells.
For more seafood recipes – how about trying our whole John Dory recipe, roasted with lemon and brown shrimps. Delicious!