Cullen Skink. Not a very promising name for a soup, really, is it? All the images that run through my mind everytime I say Cullen Skink do not equal delicious. As this is a food blog, I shan’t even go anywhere near that stinky animal that’s staring me in the face right now! Maybe you Americans have got your clever hat on by calling it Smoked Haddock Chowder!
I love smoked haddock, I guess I love all smoked fish. It would therefore follow, that a soup made with smoked fish would always rank high on my list of things to eat, and Cullen Skink or Smoked Haddock Chowder (whatever rocks your boat) is probably my favourite fish soup. Probably.
It is an amazingly easy soup to put together and tastes immeasurably better than anything you can buy in the shop, and most eateries, I bet you. Homemade, you always hear me say, is invariably superior because you control the ingredients and therefore, not only can you make a “clean” (read: no nasties) recipe, but you always make it your own, to your taste.
Cullen Skink is a rich Scottish soup made from, you guessed it, smoked haddock. Its base is a creamy mix of dairy, potatoes and leek. Simply perfect with liberally buttered bread of any kind! It comes from the town of Cullen in Moray, North East Scotland. Perfect, I would say, for long, cold Scottish days.
How to make the best Cullen Skink
The Smoked Haddock
Use good quality, undyed smoked haddock. For the simple reason that the dye is unnecessary and to my eyes, very unbecoming! That saffron yellow tinge you see makes the fish look rather sickly, don’t you think? Naturally dyed haddock should take its colour from the smoking and nothing else, giving you an off white colour, certainly no yellow in sight! As far as flavour goes, there isn’t any discernible difference.
Milk, Cream, Water, Stock or Wine? I love to make my Cullen Skink with just milk and cream, resulting in a very dairy rich soup that is just the way I like it. Some people like to cook the potatoes in water or stock, adding the poaching liquid (milk) or cream later. The best Cullen Skink or Smoked Haddock Chowder, to me, should have a subtle creamy base, with each mouthful brimming with the full smoky flavour of the haddock. Bearing this in mind, using stock and wine is just all wrong, because it interferes with the flavour profile of a good Cullen Skink. But hey, to each his own!
So, what do you do? As I always suggest, if this is the first time you’re making Cullen Skink, follow my recipe to the letter. Second time around, by all means, use some water or stock, to find your preferred balance. My husband is not a great fan of milk and cream and does prefer it if I lighten the soup somewhat by using half milk and half water or doing away with the cream altogether. But it doesn’t happen very often!
To Blend or Not to Blend
A real Cullen Skink is a rich and fairly thick soup, thanks to the blending of the soup before the addition of the smoked haddock. However, I like “other bits” than the fish, so I compromise, I blend half the soup, add it back to the saucepan, then I add the fish, resulting in a thick, flavourful soup base with bite.
Chives or Parsley
Purely a matter of preference, parsley seems to be the standard herb of choice but I definitely prefer the more spirited chives for the contrast it provides the creamy and smoky base.
How to stop milk from Curdling
Always use full fat milk, the higher the fat content, the more stable the milk.
Don’t cook on a rolling boil, simmer the milk for best results, on medium to medium-low heat.
Add salt at the end of cooking time, as salt can cause milk to curdle.
If you always struggle, dd a small amount of cornflour/cornstarch (half to 1 tsp) to your milk, this will stabilise it.
- 250g/about half a pound undyed smoked haddock
- 350ml/1.4 cups whole milk
- 1 bay leaf
- 6 black peppercorns
- 2 tbsp salted butter
- 1 leek, sliced, not the very green parts, light green is fine
- 1 large potato, peeled and cut in very small cubes (about 1cm/half inch)
- 100ml/just under half a cup single cream (about 18% fat)
- half tsp non grainy mustard of your choice
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 boiled or poached eggs to serve
- 1 - 2 tbsp of chopped fresh chives
- We'll start with poaching the fish. Heat the milk in a shallow pan on medium heat and bring to a gentle simmer.
- Add the fish and poach for only 5 minutes, this short cooking time will ensure that the fish will retain its full, smoky flavour. Reduce the heat if it's bubbling too much.
- At the end of 5 minutes, remove the fish immediately, set aside to keep warm and leave the milk as is to let the flavours of the bay and peppercorns infuse slightly more. Keep warm.
- Heat 1 tbsp of the butter in a saucepan on medium heat and sauté the leeks for 3 minutes, until soft.
- Add the potatoes and stir for a minute to allow them to soak up that butter and leek flavour a little. However, we do not want the potatoes to brown or crisp up.
- Strain the milk into the saucepan and bring back to simmering point, still on medium heat. Cook, uncovered, for about 10 -15 minutes until the potatoes are cooked, the time will depend on the size of your cut potatoes. Don't let the milk boil strongly, keep it at a simmer, lower the heat if you have to.
- In the meantime, let's flake the fish into bitesized pieces, lose the skin.
- When the potatoes are done, add the cream and mustard, stir and bring back to a gentle simmer.
- Time to check seasoning. Add some salt, half a teaspoon ought to do, but again, you have to do this bit to taste. Add a generous amount of freshly ground black pepper, it adds depth, as does the mustard.
- Turn the heat off, place half the soup into a blender and blitz to a puree. Pour back into the saucepan.
- Add the flaked fish, mix, check seasoning again.
- At this point, if you like, turn the heat back on again and very quickly, heat through.
- Add the second tablespoon of butter and stir through. Again, this just adds depth to the flavour.
- Sprinkle with chives (and more pepper?) and serve with lots of buttered toast.