Cioppino, or: return of the lobster carcass

You guys remember this.

Summer of Terror, 2009: Death and Lobster Rolls.

Welp after a six-month deep freeze, I’m hauling out the variety bucket of lobster-carcass-parts and, um, dead lobster juice. I mean, that is, the – theoretically very tasty – water in which we cooked the lobsters. And I’m making lobster stock.

Because, buddies, I am le broke. (Idea for 2010: Make a little bit more money while maintaining my distance from things that stifle this little light of mine. I’m working on it.) So while a little know-how can alchemize for me a little kitchen gold out of something I helped to do months ago, what it can’t do is magically spirit me some sweet, sweet claw meat without bumping some chedda from my checking.

SO: what do you make with lobster stock when you don’t have any lobster? (And you’re STILL obsessed with soup?)

Enter cioppino. My mother was a raving fan of the stuff until she heard the theory at Glenn’s Diner (where everything, from the cioppino to the service – to the lobster rolls, come to think of it – is mind-blowing) that cioppino was actually born in the Bay Area, where fishermen & fishing families would get together and “chip in” to make big pots of seafood soup from the bits and pieces they had sitting around. The rest, allegedly, is just catchy Italian phonetics. I’m not sure how much credence I give to this, but it sure is hilarious to see my mom’s sweeping disavowal of something when she learns it originated in California. (You’ll have to get her thoughts on the matter sometime; all I can tell you is that the magnitude of her reverence for rules and order is nearly eclipsed by her staunchness in insisting that California is a state that functions on neither.

One thing I do know is that cioppino, regardless of its origins, is one of those blessedly flexible soups that only asks for Kinds of Things, as opposed to These Things And No Others. Cioppino, in my experience and (very recent, very limited) research calls for a seafood stock, whatever sea creatures you’ve got lying around, and maybe some vegetables and herbs. Beyond that, it’s your game.

Which is good. Because I’ve got dead, meatless lobster (aka seafood stock), and a couple of other things…

  • A handful of wee bay scallops (also socked away in my freezer for a rainy day). (Because my rainy days entail the consumption of semi-luxurious seafood items, apparently.)
  • Some, um, mature celery ribs
  • A head of garlic
  • Tomato paste

Like, literally. That’s it. Okay, that’s maybe 4 out of the 7 viable/edible items I currently have in my possession. I respect and completely believe in the “chip in” philosophy (very similar to Shit From My Fridge, no?), but I keep finding it difficult to believe that La Bonne Maman Four Fruits preserves will complement seafood.

What I did not have until quite recently was:

  • Some shrimp. (“Chreemps.”)
  • A very neat-looking mahi mahi fillet (it was on sale; any firm-fleshed fishy will do. In fact, any fish will do.)
  • About four little squid fillets
  • A bulb of fennel
  • A big, fat yellow onion
  • Two potatoes
  • Three carrots

So I came home and lined up my modest battalion. Not bad, really. Everything I need to make a huge pot of something that will feed me for a week, maybe more. (Okay, lunch & dinner, at least. Breakfast, as you know, goes a little something like this. Yes, still.)

I get to work on the stock. And by now, you know the drill. Put dead creature parts in pot, cover with water, add whatever herbs/peppercorns/root vegetables you’re willing to part with (AND A BAY LEAF. God, this is totally another post for another time, but if there is one thing I’ve learned about making soup – okay, two – it’s that you can’t make a good soup without good stock and a damn bay leaf. It MAKES it. You’ll see), and simmer until you’ve watched 4 episodes of 30 Rock and called your mother. Or something. Drain to remove bones and other detritus.

In that same pot, once I’ve drained the stock into a large bowl for the time being, I cook down the celery, onion, carrots, garlic, and fennel. There’s butter and olive oil in the pot, and lots of salt and pepper.

Then, in my balla-baby 5-quart saute pan, I sear the little pieces of mahi mahi that I’ve cut up. This takes about 5 minutes, after turning them a few times and making sure I’ve got some good texture going. Then I add the scallops, shrimp, and squid (which I’ve cut into little rings). I cook this – gently, gently – until the shrimp are certainly white, but definitely not pink yet. I’ll cook the whole mess in the big pot at the end, and while I do want everything to be cooked safely, I am also easily saddened by overcooked seafood. So I add some of the stock to pull up the fishy bits from the pan, and wait a minute or two. Once this is simmering gently, I dump it all into the big pot with the vegetables, add the rest of the stock, a hefty squirt of tomato paste, and the potatoes, which I’ve cut into small but hearty chunks. I bring all of this up to a quiet simmer, work it for about 10 minutes – really just until the potatoes are done – and consider my work done.

(This is at my desk. Which is now by the window. For ease of writing and flow of creativity. There’s a very old Polaroid of my brother and me in matching sweaters in March of 1985. We may have been in Ithaca, NY. There’s also one of the original pedals belonging to Janice, my bike. Though Janice is a Schwinn, the pedal claims to have been made in France and it’s probably the queen of the janky, weird objets that decorate my apartment.)

The soup will be good now, but I know it’ll be even better tomorrow. And even better the next day. And folks, it turns out that the lobster stock – the cheapest ingredient of them all (this time around, at least) – was totally the MVP. It makes the soup velvety and complex and, strangely, not that… fishy. It’s a little sweet, very savory, and very deep. I would maybe not do the squid again (maybe another fish instead? Or mussels?), but overall it’s a soup that I’m really kinda proud of. It’s not easy to be a food geek on the cheap. The things that I find save me again and again are my freezer, a bay leaf, and, really, any idea that my mother dismisses.

Tell me what you think...

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