Cullen Skink is a traditional Scottish soup. It’s from a place called Cullen – so far, so sensible. As for Skink, well, this is what Wikipedia has to say about it:
skink is a Scots word for a shin, knuckle or hough of beef which has developed the secondary meaning of a soup, especially one made from these. The word skink is ultimately derived from Middle Dutchschenke “shin, hough”,also the root of the English word shank. Others have hypothetized that it comes from the Middle High German word for a weak beer respectively liquor or essence.
I can categorically say there is no relation to the lizard of the same name. I’m not saying I’d never make lizard soup, just that that’s not what Cullen Skink is. Hopefully we are all clear now, though I know the ‘lizard soup’ thing might have raised a few questions of its own. Let’s move on.
Today was a kind of miserable, grey day again, with a huge shower of rain just in time for clocking off work. It feels like we’ve skipped autumn and gone straight to winter – though now that I think about it, we kind of skipped spring and summer, too. I had to stop off at the shops on my way home, and schlepped in the doors like a soggy autumn leaf, dripping rain from my hair and generally looking something other than my finest. I didn’t know what I wanted for dinner, but I was ready for something to heat me up right to the very soles of my feet. I had a bit of an aimless wander, waiting for the rain on my glasses to dry off so that I could see, and as I passed the fish section I noticed that they had some smoked haddock fillets. It all became clear to me: Cullen Skink. Now, there are rules about Cullen Skink; it’s the kind of recipe that people are quite serious about, they don’t like anyone messing around with it. I decided to mess around with it anyway and face the wrath of the villagers with burning torches later, if necessary.
There is a very interesting article on The Guardian’s website about Cullen Skink. Felicity Cloake tried and tested bags of different recipes and techniques, selflessly eating bowl after bowl of soup to get to the perfect result. She details the different approaches that chefs have taken over the years: to use stock or only milk, to add cream or not, to use Arbroath Smokies or Finnan Haddies (those are both kinds of fish, you see), to puree completely or leave chunky… There are many variables to be considered, here. I took great inspiration from Felicity’s article, and final recipe, but added a few ideas of my own. It’s not proper Cullen Skink, but oh my, it was good.
Serves 2 – 4, depending on bowl size…
- 1 tbsp rapeseed oil
- thin slice of butter – probably about 1 tsbp
- 1/2 leek (or one small leek)
- medium baking potato
- 1 clove smoked garlic
- pinch smoked salt
- 300ml water
- 200g smoked haddock
- 400ml milk
- handful frozen broad beans
- handful chopped parsley
- salt and pepper to taste
To make the garnish:
- 1 tbsp rapeseed oil
- 1 shallot, thinly sliced into rings
- 4 – 5 asparagus tips, sliced in half lengthways
- chopped parsley
- bread and real butter
The key thing to this soup is to take it very easy while you’re cooking. I once curdled a whole pot of fish chowder, it rather put me off making it again. To avoid that eventuality, I cooked this one very gently over a low heat, and the results really showed the difference.
Start by slicing the half leek into rings. I took half of the green and half of the white; they have different flavours, and the green adds lovely colour, too. Cube up your potato, leaving the skin on – go for chunks that you wouldn’t mind finding in your soup bowl, because some of them will end up in there. Finely chop the garlic.
Once your veg is prepared, heat the oil and butter over a medium-low heat, until the butter is foamy. Add the leeks and garlic, and cook for about five minutes, until the leek is very soft and the pot already smells delicious.
Add the potato and cook for a further five minutes, stirring well to coat the potatoes in the butter and oil. Add a pinch of smoked sea salt at this stage, but not too much – the fish will add a lot of salt, you don’t want to overdo it.
Add the water and reduce the heat to low. 300ml should be just enough to cover the potatoes. Put a lid on the pot and leave to simmer for 20 minutes.
Pour the milk into the pot and stir. You will see yellow dots of oil and butter floating on the surface when you stop mixing; this is fine. Place the fish into the soup, submerging it as much as you can, and cook for another fifteen minutes, with the lid on again.
Lift out the fish and break away from the skin and into flakes. It should just fall apart in your hands. Discard the skin.
Now we have reached the puree controversy: I used an immersion blender and whizzed up about half of the ingredients, leaving some chunks of veg. You can make it completely smooth if you prefer, or use a potato masher instead of a blender for a more rustic finish. Since we’re already taking liberties with the recipe you may as well go with whatever style of soup you prefer.
Return the flaked fish to the pot, stir through and return to the low heat, still covered, for ten minutes. I got a fright when I opened the pot to see this:
…but it stirred back through without any problems. Taste the soup now and season as necessary. Add the broad beans and leave over a low heat until ready to serve – at least five minutes, to heat the beans through.
Now we are going to make crispy shallots and charred asparagus. I first saw crispy shallots as a soup garnish on Sparrows and Spatulas’ blog, and have stored them in the back of my mind until now, when they suddenly seemed like an excellent idea. I also found some asparagus on my journey round the supermarket, and decided this would make a perfect second garnish.
Start by heating the oil over a medium-high heat. Add the shallot rings and cook, stirring often, until browned. Be careful, because they will go from browned to unrecognisable slivers of charcoal quite quickly. I learned this the hard way. When they have the right amount of colour, scoop them out of the pan onto a sheet of kitchen roll. Now, toss the asparagus into the same pan, and cook until softened and charred round the edges. Add them to the kitchen roll.
Give the soup one final stir and taste, season if necessary, then ladle into bowls. Add a sprinkle of chopped parsley, then a stack of asparagus and decorate with crispy shallots. Enjoy with your bread of choice.