Christmas in San Francisco

It was a plenty splendiferous holiday in good old San Francisco. No snow, of course, not even badly needed rain but spirits weren’t dulled. Ice skaters circled the diminutive rinks at Justin Plaza Herman Plaza and at Union Square, stores  bustled, school-free children were all smiles. Evening was the best time with twinkly lights from the enormous tree erected in Union Square

and from the dozens of lighted wreaths that festooned Macy’s windows.

Elsewhere, carolers strolled streets, restaurants and bars made spirits bright, cable cars clanged merry – most of them decorated with garlands and crimson bows. There was that indefinable holiday spirit in the air, a muffled cheeriness that is sadly lacking eleven and a half months of the year. On the other hand, if magic was the norm, we would neither recognize nor appreciate it. Special is special, dreamy, charming, mystic and powerful.

I made cioppino at Christmas, have been for decades. I follow no set recipe any longer which makes my stews slightly different each year. If you are not familiar with this traditional San Francisco delight, here is a basic recipe:


serves six

3-4         whole crabs cracked and cleaned

2 lbs.      clams – smaller the better

1 lb.        mussels (optional)

2 lbs.      medium fresh shrimp – deveined

2 lbs.      red snapper or sea bass or petrale

2            #2 can crushed pear shape tomatoes or whole tomatoes

2            14 oz. can diced tomatoes

2            32 oz.  containers of clear chicken broth

12 oz.    dry vermouth

16 oz.    hot water

6 oz.     olive oil

2           medium onions

2           small carrot

5          sprigs parsley

4          kernels garlic

2          teaspoon dried crushed Italian herbs (oregano, basil, thyme, sage, marjoram)

2          teaspoon salt

pinch   black pepper

4          whole bay leaves (for flavoring only – do not ingest)

2          whole red chilies – Sorrento, jalapeno or similar


Soak and scrub clams and mussels, let soak until ready to use.

Mince onions, carrot, parsley, chili pepper and garlic. Brown slowly in olive oil in 6 qt. pot, stir often.

Cut red snapper or similar white fish in 1″ squares add to sauté for 5 minutes. Stir.

Add crushed tomatoes and cook for 20 minutes.

Add chicken broth, hot water, bay leaves.

Heat and boil gently while stirring for 10 minutes.

Add clams and mussels, vermouth, cook 5 minutes.

Add crab, stir 5 minutes.

Add salt, black pepper, bay leaves, Italian herbs, and shrimp, cook 10 minutes.

Make ahead of time and reheat, the flavors marry better and seasonings have a chance to do their magic.

Serve with crisp green salad and hunks of French, Italian or sourdough bread.

Pair with a hearty red wine.


Beautiful and yummy.

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