“If you’re alive, you can’t be bored in San Francisco. If you’re not alive, San Francisco will bring you to life. San Francisco is a world to explore. It is a place where the heart can go on a delightful adventure. It is a city in which the spirit can know refreshment every day.” – William Saroyan
I think it’s true that San Francisco is a place that will bring you to life. I distinctly remember the first time I visited, crossing over the Bay on that famed bridge, eagerly waiting for the fog to lift so I could catch my first real glimpse of the city. I’d seen it so many times; in magazines, on screens big and small, and in others’ photographs, and while yes, a picture is said to be worth a thousand words, it cannot hold a candle to seeing something in person, live and in living color. There’s really nothing like seeing a new place for the first time, feeling its distinctive heartbeat and taking in all of the myriad sensory experiences with which vibrant cities are always waiting to provide you.
The second time I visited San Francisco was on my honeymoon. My husband and I were on a trip that consisted largely of driving around Northern California, staying in lovely coastal bed and breakfasts, and sampling some of the region’s wines. On one of our last nights there, were were sitting on the balcony of our Sausalito hotel room that literally jutted out over the waters of the San Francisco Bay, offering spectacular views of the city and a setting that is pretty tough to beat. Sipping on wine, eating some cheese, watchin the ships roll in, watchin ’em roll away again – it was nice. At one point, as the sun was sinking down past the city’s skyline, I got up to grab the bottle of wine from inside our room.
“Be right back HUSBAND!” I called out to him, probably giggling like a goofball. So enraptured with the fact that I was with my shiny new husband in such a glorious place drinking and eating such delicious local fare, I guess I lost my sense of depth perception for a second. Not remembering that we’d closed the pristine, crystal clear sliding glass door to our room, I managed to walk straight into it at full speed. “WHAM!”
The Lauren-shaped nose and lip prints on the glass remained there for the rest of our stay. Ah memories …
Normally when I travel, I like to stray away from popular and/or touristy fare, opting instead to fall slightly off the beaten path, enjoying haunts of the more local variety. But for some reason when I was in San Francisco, I was determined to try ALL of the iconic foods for which the city is known. It was like I gave myself honeymoon homework. My San Fran bucket list was filled to its brim with the usual NorCal suspects: tri-tip sandwiches, abalone, sourdough bread, Ghirardelli chocolate, Dungeness crab, and cioppino. I felt like I HAD to try all of these things while I was there or else basically become one huge failure of a tourist.
So, that being the case, I set out on my culinary mission and did actually manage to check off most of the items on my must-try list, I’m happy to report. Everything was good – the bread was unbeatable, the chocolate even better when enjoyed inside the actual Ghirardelli factory, and the seafood was practically perfect in every way. I could not get enough of it while I was there, and the best of the best seafood dishes I enjoyed while I was in San Francisco was, hands-down-no-contest-everybody-else-go-home, the cioppino.
I had my first bowl at a small, extraordinarily crowded little dive right down by Fisherman’s Wharf. I clearly recall scooching my way through the crowd with my Styrofoam bowl of red, steaming soup and pulling up a little chair at one of their outdoor tables that happened to open up for us right as we needed it to (good honeymoon karma!). The aroma of the seafood with which this famed stew was filled was intoxicating, it really was. I remember this because the stuff was so piping hot that I sort of had to just sit there and smell it for a few minutes before it was safe to eat. Topped off with a couple slices of fresh, plain sourdough bread for dunking, this was such a simple and pure example of San Francisco cuisine at its finest.
A true fisherman’s stew, Cioppino is said to have been created aboard the fishing boats off the shores of San Francisco by fishermen who had immigrated from Genoa. Lacking refrigeration, they needed some satisfying dishes that could be prepared quickly with their fresh catch using some canned and bottled products for flavoring (i.e. tomatoes and wine). To this day, you can find plenty of great variations and adaptations of this wonderful stew in so many homes and restaurants across the Bay area. My recipe below is an ode to that simple, unpretentious bowl I so thoroughly enjoyed with my brand new husband from our little table on Pier 39.
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 large shallots, or three small, thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, core removed and thinly sliced (you can reserve some of the fronds for garnish)
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
4 garlic cloves, minced or grated
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/3 cup tomato paste
28-oz can of crushed tomatoes (San Marzano if you can)
10 ounces of dry white wine
32-ounce box of seafood stock (4 cups)
2 bay leaves
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
1 lb mussels
1 lb clams
1 lb shrimp, peeled, deveined and uncooked
1 – 1.5 lbs fish (halibut, mahi mahi, tilapia, cod, flounder – all work fine), cut into large pieces
1 tablespoon butter
2/3 cup fresh sourdough breadcrumbs (3 slices of bread, lightly toasted and pulsed in a food processor will do it)
1.5 teaspoons garlic powder
Extra sourdough bread, for serving
Olive oil for finishing
Heat two tablespoons of the olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion, shallots, fennel, and salt and sauté everything until the veggies are translucent, around 10 minutes.
Add the garlic, red pepper flakes, and the oregano and sauté the pot’s contents for a couple more minutes. Stir in the tomato paste. Add the crushed tomatoes, wine, fish stock, and the bay leaves. Cover the pot and bring everything to a simmer. Simmer over low heat for about 45 more minutes to allow the flavors to marry.
Add the mussels and clams to the pot. Cover and cook until the clams and mussels begin to open, about 5 minutes. Add the shrimp and fish. Gently simmer the cioppino just until the shrimp and fish are just cooked through and the clams/mussels are fully open. Stir the contents of the pot for a few more minutes and throw away any shellfish that did not open.
Remove the bay leaf from the pot, and test the cioppino for seasoning. Season with more salt pepper as/if needed.
Serve hot, topped with the garlicky breadcrumbs, a drizzle of good olive oil, and some slices of sourdough bread on the side.
For the breadcrumbs:
Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter to a small skillet over medium heat. Add 2/3 cup breadcrumbs and 1.5 teaspoons garlic powder to the skillet. Cook the breadcrumbs gently, stirring frequently, until they are toasty and golden brown, about 5 minutes.
Homemade Chocolate Bar RECIPE
2 cups of your favorite chocolate chips or chunks
Toppings of your choosing: nuts, sprinkles, crushed cookies, candies, etc.
Add a couple inches of water to a small saucepan and place it on the stove over medium heat. Pour the chocolate into a heat-proof bowl (that is larger than the saucepan) and place the bowl over the pot of water, creating a makeshift double-boiler. Gently stir the chocolate as it begins to melt and remove it from the heat when all of the chocolate is totally melted.
Pour the melted chocolate onto a parchment paper-lined baking sheet and spread evenly with a spatula. Sprinkle with your desired toppings and then allow the chocolate to harden completely before breaking into pieces.