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JimmyT’s covid comfort food kitchen: Cullen Skink

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Cullen Skink as served in my favourite Glasgow restaurant, Cafe Gandolfi

Remember when we were first locked down last year – everybody was baking cheese scones and their own sourdough?

Judging by the lack of crusty bread pictures in my various social media pages, I’m guessing the “survival” urges aren’t quite so strong this time around.

But cooking is fun when you have the time, and it’s good to be able to share and compare recipes, which is one way of feeding each other without having to go into each other’s homes.

With that in mind, I’m going to offer up some of my “comfort food” dishes, starting with Cullen Skink, a traditional thick Scottish smoked fish and potato soup that has become a staple of all the fancy restaurants in Scotland and beyond.

One of the good things about this dish is that not only is it very tasty and filling (very) it’s also quick and easy.

Once you get past the off-putting name – it has nothing to do with the Australian reptiles or, indeed, veteran Australian actor Max – you’ll find a delicious, warming winter soup that’s perilously close to a chowder.

I’m indebted to the Scots cuisine website (not an oxymoron) Scottish Scran for this description which also comes with a recipe that I won’t be using.

Cullen Skink is named after the town of Cullen in Aberdeenshire. Originally Cullen Skink was a type of beef broth made from the front legs of cattle, and the word skink was used to mean a shin or knuckle of beef. 

Around the early 1890s smoked haddock was in a much more plentiful supply than beef around the area of Cullen, as the village had become specialist in producing it, and so it was used to make a simple smoked fish soup instead. 

Enough of the history.  As this is a traditional recipe, there is no “right” way to do this (but quite a few wrong ways).  Many recipes don’t have leeks.  I do because they add a certain fragrance.  Many recipes insist on bay leaves.  I can take or leave them (no pun intended).

So here are the basics for two hearty servings or four starters.

  • 25g butter
  • 1 medium brown onion
  • 1 good-sized leek
  • Three or four decent sized potatoes (400g)
  • 280g smoked mackerel
  • 300ml whole milk (about 1 and 1/4 cups)
  • 50ml pouring cream
  • 300ml boiling water (about 1 and 1/4 cups)
  • Optional – Chives or Parsley to garnish 
  • Optional – Fish stock (to replace water)

Now, remember this is going to be a soup so you can chop the onion and leek quite small to save cooking time.

The potatoes should be peeled and cut into 1cm cubes.  A good, waxy, mashing potato is best but anything will do if it works for you.

This is supposed to be made with smoked haddock but that’s in short supply in Australia so I go for Mr Fish smoked mackerel which you can usually find in Harris Farms Market in their pre-packed fish display.

Interestingly, the Mr Fish hot smoked haddock comes in a box that says in brackets that it’s also called Lakenda.  And it comes in a box marked Lakenda, which says, in brackets, that it’s also called mackerel. Either way, the identical boxes are from Latvia.

OK, the method.

Chop the onion and blanche it in about half of the butter.  Don’t overheat this as you don’t want the butter to burn or the onion to brown. 

Finely slice the leek and add it to the onion and let it sweat for a few minutes. The onion should be translucent and the leek limp.

Add the potato cubes and stir them into the leak and onion so that they get nicely coated with the butter (and you can add more of that if you feel the urge).

Add some freshly ground black pepper but don’t be tempted to over-salt the potatoes as they will get plenty of that from the fish.  And this is where I diverge from a lot of recipes.  They would tell you to cook the smoked fish in the milk and then use the milk to cook the potatoes.

But since the fish I’m using is already cooked and good to go, I’m just going to add the milk and enough of the other liquid to just cover the potatoes and cook them for about 12-15 minutes. 

When cooked, you want the potato to be just and only just resistant to a fork – kind of al dente, if you like.

Add half the smoked fish (flaked), and take a heaped dessert spoon of potato, onion, fish and leek mixture, for each of the bowls you plan to serve, and set that aside.

Then a bit more of the liquid, and mash it all up. Feel free to use a blender at this stage but I use a Bamix stick blender as it leaves the mixture a bit rough.

The consistency should be about the same as a cauliflower soup but thicker than a pumpkin soup.

Add the last of the fish (flaked again) and the cream while heating. Serve, adding a dollop of the potato and leek mixture as a kind of garnish in the middle of each bowl.  Sprinkle chopped chives or parsley to add a little colour and serve with crusty bread.

VARIATIONS

Some people make mashed potatoes separately and add them at the same time as the bulk of the fish.  I don’t.

Some cooks add sweet corn, making the soup a bit more chowdery.  I’ve been known to do this.

Some use fish stock instead of water which makes the soup even more fishy (surprise, surprise).  I keep a tin of Massels fake chicken stock powder handy, just in case the base flavour needs a boost with a teaspoonful or two.

Because this is a traditional recipe, many different variations have evolved so you should feel free to find a version of this that suits your tastebuds. Or experiment until you do.

In fact, if you Google “Cullen skink” you will find dozens of different ways of making it.  Mine is based loosely on Jamie Oliver’s, which works for me.

And there’s a very simple recipe from Cafe Gandolfi, my favourite restaurant in Glasgow

A word of warning, if you serve this as a starter, make the portions small.  It’s so filling that no one will eat your mains.

Have a go – it’s the best thing to happen to mackerel and potatoes since fish and chips.

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