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American, California
San Francisco–Style Seafood Stew Default

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On parts of the globe where people and the sea come together, seafood stew is almost ubiquitous, and the West Coast of North America is no exception. Here, variations on the theme seem to revolve around the quintessential seafood stew known as cioppino, served at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Rather than try to reproduce yet another “authentic” version of that seafood stew, I offer here one of the many variations. This one evolved in a restaurant on San Juan Island, where I filleted whole fish every day for the evening menu. The carcasses were transformed into simple fish stock, and pieces of fillet that were too small to be served as an entrée were set aside for stew. We made the stew base early in the day and kept it chilled, to be reheated and larded with all the seafood just before serving. The same thing can be done at home. Serve it with plenty of crusty sourdough bread.

Yield: Makes 6 very generous servings


For the Base:

  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and thinly sliced
  • ¼ cup fresh basil leaves, shredded, or 1 tablespoon dried
  • 2 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves, shredded, or 2 teaspoons dried
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, or ½ teaspoon dried
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1 tablespoon grated or finely chopped garlic
  • 1 tablespoon dried red chile flakes
  • 1 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 4 cups fish stock
  • One 28-ounce can diced tomatoes in their own juice, preferably organic

To Finish the Stew:

  • 1 bunch Swiss chard
  • 1½ pounds salmon fillet, cut into 2-ounce chunks
  • 1½ pounds halibut fillet, cut into 2-ounce chunks
  • 12 oysters, preferably live, in their shells
  • 36 mussels, live, in their shells
  • 24 prawns, shelled and deveined
  • Lemon wedges and basil sprigs, for garnish


1. In a stainless steel or enameled soup pot, warm the olive oil over medium-high heat, then sauté the sliced onion until tender and just beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Stir in the basil, oregano, and thyme, and when the herbs are sizzling hot, pour the wine over them. Stir in the garlic and chile flakes and boil until the wine has evaporated and the mixture is beginning to sizzle again.

2. Meanwhile, put the saffron threads and a cup of the fish stock in a small saucepan and cook over medium heat until the fish stock is just beginning to boil.

3. Add the saffron mixture, the remaining 3 cups fish stock, and the tomatoes to the  pot. (At this point, the base can be chilled until serving time.)

4. Roll the leaves of Swiss chard lengthwise into a cigar-shaped bundle and cut across the bundle to make thin ribbons of greens. Place the pot containing the stew base over high heat and add all of the seafood and chard. Cover and cook until the oyster and mussel shells have opened and the fish has turned opaque, about 15 minutes.

5. Use a slotted spoon to distribute the seafood evenly among 6 large serving bowls. Ladle the stew over the seafood. Garnish each serving with a wedge of lemon and a sprig of fresh basil, and serve at once.

© 2006 Greg Atkinson

Nutritional Information

Nutrients per serving (% daily value)

665kcal (33%)
1023mg (43%)
31g (48%)
6g (30%)
171mg (57%)
280mcg RAE (9%)
43mg (72%)
199mg (20%)
10mg (55%)

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