Gordon Hamersley and his wife, Fiona, owned Hamersley’s Bistro in the South End for 27 years, until they closed the restaurant late last year. His cooking column will appear in the Food section biweekly, offering chef’s tips, dishes he’s been making lately, favorite recipes, and more. Read his last column on mac and cheese.
Cullen Skink is not the name of a Scottish punk singer from Glasgow. Nor is it something the dog just rolled in. Cullen skink is a fantastic Scottish chowder-like soup with a smoky flavor, made in most fishing villages along the North Sea.
I was recently in northern Scotland and found cullen skink served all over the place. I must have slurped down four or five bowls in 10 days. Essentially made with smoked haddock, potatoes, onions, and a touch of cream, this bowl is a wonderful way to brighten up a winter meal. The soup will remind you of the best of our traditional New England cooking.
Cullen is a town on the east coast of the North Sea, and the word skink is thought to have originally meant beef shin or hoof. My guess is that the soup was originally made with beef, but Scottish cooks are practical and ever thrifty. Soon they were using the local fish, which was smoked, because it was cheaper than beef shins and hooves. And so a new recipe was born.
There was a time before refrigeration when most fish was salted, dried, or smoked as a way to preserve it for the cold months. Smoking haddock became a way of life for many households in fishing villages throughout the British Isles, and today the tradition endures.
Smoked haddock, called finnan haddie, originated near Aberdeen in the village of Findon (sometimes called Finnan). Though wood and peat were originally used on the local fish, now it’s typically cold-smoked over wood only, then dyed yellow by some smoking companies. But the best smoked haddock is lightly smoked and not colored; it develops its color naturally. In the United Kingdom, cooks try to find the undyed fish, which is split and smoked on the bone. Arbroath haddock is gutted and smoked whole. Both are used in Scottish kitchens.
These days, of course, cooking with smoked fish is purely for flavor and out of respect for the culinary past. Often methods created out of necessity are transformed into valuable historical traditions.
My version of the soup starts with leeks and potatoes. Clam broth and a touch of vegetable or chicken broth are added as well as thyme and red pepper flakes. Next come clams and finally, flaked smoked haddock. The kitchen explodes with the distinctive aroma of the fish and if you didn’t know better, you’d think you had added a pound of bacon to the pot.
This bowl packs a punch and outshines our somewhat bland chowders in flavor and complexity. One cooking tip: Once you add the cream to the pot, do not let it boil and be careful not to let the fish break up too much. Use whatever smoked fish that is available in the market — you might find whitefish, trout, or tiny smoked Maine shrimp.
My British/Scottish wife, Fiona, is amused by all the attention I give this dish because she doesn’t think the food of her homeland is generally up to par on most counts, hence her move to France at an early age. But when I visit the UK, our New England food history becomes obvious, even though some dishes are disparaged in the hip world of cool new food.
Cullen skink isn’t cool. But its roots are deep and worth reinterpreting.
Gordon Hamersley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.