4 live and lively medium-large Dungeness crabs
(about 6 pounds total)
¾ cup dry white wine
1/3 cup grappa
1 small handful fresh flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
1 small dried chile
3 big cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
Zest of 1 lemon, pared off in relatively big pieces
3 cups good homemade mixed-meat stock, or chicken stock
1 (2-pound) can whole peeled tomatoes, preferably San Marzanos, drained (liquid reserved) and roughly chopped
Optional (these will make your cioppino serve 6):
2 pounds halibut or Pacific rockfish, cut into large cubes
2 dozen littleneck clams in the shell, scrubbed
Ideally, you’ll cut up your crabs while they’re still alive. Set a crab, top shell down, on your work surface and, with a large, heavy knife or Chinese cleaver, make one sure, swift stroke through the middle of the body. (If you don’t want to do this, bring a large pot of water to a boil and drop in your live crabs. Leave them for 5 minutes, then drain and proceed with the recipe.)
Pull off and discard the mouth parts, abdomen plate and long, fleshy gills. Remove the liver and pancreas (the gushy part inside the body) and reserve. Once you’ve saved the guts, you can clean the crab under running water, which makes it less messy. Separate the claws and walking legs (leaving a section of the body attached to each) and gently crack each section with a hammer or mallet (don’t go crazy, just make a crack in each shell).
Set a large, deep pot over medium heat and cover the bottom with a film of olive oil. Get this hot and drop in the crab pieces and a few healthy pinches of salt. Toss briefly, then cover and leave to steam for 5 minutes, or until all the pieces feel warm.
Turn up the flame and add the wine and grappa, the parsley, chile, garlic and lemon zest. Boil vigorously, uncovered, for 10 minutes.
Add the stock and the chopped tomatoes and their reserved liquid. (If you’re using the halibut or rockfish, add the pieces now.) Boil vigorously, uncovered, stirring everything around a few times, for 30 minutes. (If you’re adding clams, do it for the last 5 minutes or so of boiling.) The shells should have all turned a brilliant orange, with the tomatoes beginning to dissolve and the liquid reduced by about a quarter. Taste the broth, season with more salt if necessary and grind in some black pepper.