Cullen skink (smoked-haddock chowder) may sound like an elusive animal, but it’s commonly found on Scottish restaurant menus or bubbling away in pots overseen by the country’s home cooks. What its name lacks in appeal, the chowder makes up for in flavor.
The strange moniker derives from two sources: Cullen, a tiny village in the north of Scotland, and skink, meaning “essence” in Gaelic. Smoked haddock, specifically finnan haddies, are an integral part of the Scottish culinary culture and the core of Cullen skink.
Although I was born in Scotland, being fed by an Italian mother meant that I wasn’t eating typical Scottish fare most days. My father ran a fish-and-chip shop and served fried fresh haddock every day, but I was usually treated to a “fish supper” only on Friday nights. I don’t recall ever having smoked haddock as a child, and I tasted Cullen skink for the first time only four years ago. How could this sublime flavor have eluded me for all those years?
Dipping your spoon into this thick, velvety soup, dotted with tender flakes of milk-poached smoked haddock, prepares you for what’s to come. Tasting Cullen skink is a heavenly experience you won’t soon forget. There’s not even a hint of fishiness, and before you know it, you’ll be staring at the bottom of your bowl.
This recipe is decidedly simple and can be prepared in under 30 minutes. Be sure to have some crusty white bread or hearty brown bread on hand. You can thank me later.
1 pound smoked haddock (Stonington Seafood for great-quality haddies)
2 ½ cups whole milk
¼ stick good-quality butter, like Kerrygold
1 ½ cups onion, diced (or leeks, sliced)
2 large potatoes, peeled and diced
Salt and pepper
Dash heavy whipping cream
Fresh parsley, chopped
Hearty bread (recommended)
Place the smoked haddock skin side down in a pan and add enough of the milk to just cover the haddock. Remove the fish, bring the milk to a boil, and then put the smoked haddock back in the pan. Reduce the heat and allow the liquid to simmer over low heat for 4 minutes. Remove the smoked haddock from the milk and allow it to cool. Strain the milk into a jug and set aside.
In another pot, add the butter as well as the onions (or leeks) and sauté for a few minutes until the onions are transparent but not brown. Next, add the milk from the smoked haddock along with the rest of the milk. Add the diced potatoes and about half a teaspoon of salt. Simmer the liquid gently until the potatoes are cooked.
Meanwhile, prepare the smoked haddock. Once the fish is cool enough to handle, pull the skin off (it comes off very easily). Flake the fish into large pieces.
When the potatoes are ready, remove about one-quarter to one-half of the chowder (depending on how thick you like it), pour the mixture into a container, and pureé it with an immersion blender. Once the mixture has been pureéd, pour the chowder into the pot.
Add the flaked fish, taste, and adjust the seasoning. Add pepper if desired. Cook for about 2 minutes, then serve with a little drizzle of cream, a sprinkle of chopped parsley, and some hearty bread.