25th of January marks the birthday of the Scottish Poet Robert Burns. Never heard of him? Ever sung “Auld Lang Syne”? Then you’ve sung a poem by Robert Burns, one of the world’s most celebrated poets.
Burns started out on a farm as a simple ploughman. His poetry celebrates not just the beauty of nature, but also living life to the full. Perhaps not surprising then, that his birthday marks “Burns night”: an evening of whisky, singing and dancing and a traditional Burns night supper where a traditional Scottish haggis is proudly presented to the room with much aplomb, accompanied by bagpipes, speeches, poems, toasts and, of course, ending with a raucous rendition of Auld Lang Syne.
No haggis on my table tonight, even though I much enjoyed the crunchy haggis crumb on the spiced pumpkin soup with battered sprouts at the Dram & Smoke pop-up last month.
Instead, a classic Scottish smoked haddock soup graced my table. It may have been followed by a wee dram.
Cullen is a fishing town on the North Eastern coast of Scotland, well-known for its amazing haddock. The origin of the word “skink” is more obscure. Some say it comes from the German word for a weak beer, or else the German word “Schinke”, meaning a ham or a shin of beef.
I imagine it’s likely the latter, as Cullen skink apparently originated in Russia, where it was made with potatoes, onions and beef. But cattle was gold-dust in coastal regions. So the Cullen folk adjusted the recipe to use plentiful fish instead. Smoked fish, as that was the way of preserving fish in those long-forgotten days before fridges. And of course the smokiness adds undeniable flavour.
In its simplicity, I think Cullen skink is one of the finest hearty fish soups you could enjoy in the colder winter months.
The purest version of this soup is made with milk, onions, potatoes and smoked haddock. Some recipes add stock or cream or both. Others replace the smoked haddock with Arbroath Smokey or smoked mackerel (too strong!). I’ve seen bacon or other seafood added too.
Mine is usually fairly classic, but I’ve gone for some extra veg and a curry twist today. Just don’t tell the Scots.
Slàinte, Mr. Burns!
Curried Cullen Skink (serves 4 – GF DF RSF)
Without the curry powder, egg and optional veg, this is a my standard Cullen skink recipe.
I part blend the soup for texture and to thicken, but you can leave it completely chunky as is, or blend the lot until as smooth as a baby’s bottom if you prefer.
Replace the butter with oil and use your favourite non-dairy milk and cream to make it dairy free.
This soup is wholesome enough to be served as a light lunch or supper for 3-4 people, perhaps with some crusty bread for dunking. Else it generously serves 4 as a filling starter.
400 gr smoked haddock fillet, skin on, preferably undyed
400 ml water, light chicken or vegetable stock (fish stock will make the soup too “fishy”)
100 ml white wine or vermouth (optional)
A bay leaf or 2
1 tbsp of butter, preferably clarified butter or ghee
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1/2 leek, white only, sliced (optional)
2-3 potatoes (about 400 gr), peeled and diced
1 carrot or a good slice of butternut squash, peeled and diced (optional)
300 ml whole milk
1-2 tsp good curry powder (the mild funky yellow mellow kind. Leave the madras for another day)
A good pinch of turmeric if you like more colour
S&P (I use white pepper for this)
2-3 tbsp whipping or double cream (optional)
4 poached eggs or confit egg yolks (optional – see below)
some chopped chives or parsley (coriander if you want to echo the curry feel)
Place the fish into a large pan and cover with stock. Add the bay leaf and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Chances are that the fish is already cooked by the time the stock comes to a simmer. You’re looking for opaque and just starting to flake Else continue the simmer on low for a few more minutes until the fish is cooked but still holding shape.
Carefully remove the fish from the stock and set both aside.
Wipe the pan clean and melt the butter in it on a medium-low heat. Add the onion, leek, curry powder and turmeric (if using). Season and cook until softened over a low heat, stirring often.
Add the potato chunks and continue to sauté gently until the potato starts to look a little transparant. Turn the heat to medium-high and add the wine (if using). Let it reduce quickly, stirring to deglaze the pan in case any bits have caught.
Add the stock, including the bay leaf, the carrot and the milk. Bring to a simmer and cook until the potato and carrot are tender.
Meanwhile roughly flake the fish, removing the skin and any bones as you go.
Remove 1/4 of the veg from the stock and set side. Remove the bay leaf and discard. Add 1/4 of the haddock to the pan. Check the seasoning.
Crush the soup with a potato masher, or blend using a stick blender or in a blender or food processor (in batches). It’s up to you how rough or smooth you like it.
Put the remaining veg back into the pan, together with the remaining haddock and the cream(if using). Gently heat through for a couple of minutes.
Divide over 4 bowls or soup plates and slide a poached egg or a confit egg yolk into the middle of each (if using).
Serve with a sprinkling of fresh herbs and perhaps a drizzle of cream.
Poached Eggs ( serves 4 – GF DF LC V RSF)
You don’t need an egg poacher. Just a wide pan and water. O, and eggs, of course.
I don’t add vinegar to the water as suggested by many chefs, as despite what they say, I CAN taste it in the eggs and I don’t like the flavour “bonus”. The vinegar is supposed to help keep the egg whites together. But the key really is to use ultra-fresh eggs.
Eggs have 2 types of white around the yolk: a gelatinous thick albumen right around the yolk, and a thinner white around that. As the egg gets older, there is more and more of the thinner white, and both whites get more and more watery as the egg ages. Which is why you’ll end up with a straggly egg white that doesn’t hold together well around the yolk when you use an older egg.
Tip 2: Don’t add the eggs into violently boiling water, but while it is at the gentlest of a simmer. Use a heat diffuser if you need to on a gas hob. Then turn the heat off.
Tip 3: Break each egg into a small bowl or ramekin first, instead of straight into the water. That way, if the yolk breaks or it looks too watery, you can go for another egg instead of wasting it in the water.
Tip 4: Give the water a slow swirl with a spoon before you add each egg. It creates a whirlpool effect that helps the whites to gather around the yolk. Gently does it though: just like the simmering versus boiling tip: the uncooked egg is very delicate and you don’t want to go crazy with it.
My last tip is probably the most useful one: you can poach eggs in advance and take the stress out of it, especially if you need a large number of them all at the same time. Poach them as you normally would and then immediately plunge them into iced water to stop the cooking process. Place them into a large container, cover with cold water and then a lid or clingfilm. Store in the fridge up to 2-3 days. When you need them, drain off the cold water and pour over freshly boiled water that you’ve let rest for a couple of minutes. be gently when pouring as the eggs are fragile. Your eggs will reheat within a minute or so. Use them immediately, else they will overcook.
If you’re interested in learning about cooking eggs sous-vide, including poached eggs, I highly recommend Serious Eats for great guidance and information.
Crack your eggs into separate ramekins, making sure the yolks are intact and there is no shell.
Bring water to a simmer in a pan, about 7-8 cm deep. Turn the heat down to as low as it can go until you only see the odd lazy bubble rise slowly. Create a gentle whirlpool with a spoon and slide your first egg into the center of the swirl. As the egg starts to settle, immediately add the second egg and so on. You may need to “reactivate” the lazy mini-whirlpool for the 3rd and 4th egg. But be gentle.
When they are all in, simmer for 30 secs. Then turn the heat off. Let the pan sit off the heat for 8 mins. Use an egg timer. Occasionally check progress, as timing will depend on the size and age of the eggs, and how you like your yolks. If not yet done to your liking after 8 mins, add another minute or so.
If you keep the pan uncovered, it will take 8-10 minutes depending on the size of your eggs.
Remove the eggs with a slotted spoon and either transfer to iced water if not using straight away, or drain on a clean J-cloth. You could drain on kitchen paper, but I prefer a J-cloth as bits of wet kitchen paper can stick to the eggs.
Confit Egg Yolks (serves 4 – GF DF LC V RSF)
Confit egg yolks are great to add a buttery creaminess to many home cooked dishes. Try them instead of a poached egg to jazz up grilled asparagus or fish, or to top steak tartare, a warm salad, pasta or pizza. They can also be used to thicken and add richness to creamy sauces.
Use the whites for something else or freeze them in ice cube trays for later.
My oven doesn’t go low enough for the oven method, so I use my multicooker as a sous-vide to confit my yolks.
4 egg yolks
Olive oil or rapeseed oil
Oven method: Heat the oven to 65 C. Add the egg yolks to a pan or Dutch oven with enough oil to cover. Cover with a tight fitting lid and cook in the oven for 1 hr. Check them from 40 mins onwards, as depending on size, they may be done earlier. They need to be set on the outside, but marshmallowy in the middle.
Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a J-cloth or kitchen paper. If not using straight away, they can be stored in the fridge in the cooled oil for up to 3 days.
Sous-vide method: Heat the waterbath to 62-64C . Place up to 4 eggs in a food-grade plastic bag and add oil to cover. Be careful, I’ve had more yolks split on me doing this than I care to mention. Left one in the pic: yolk broke. Right one in the pic: yolk success. The broken yolk was still nice though, so don’t bin it. it just doesn’t look quite so perfect as the other one.
Seal and cook for 45 mins-1hr depending on size and desired doneness/chosen temperature. I did my large duck egg yolks 1 hr at 63 C.
Use straight away or dip in iced water and then store in the bag in the fridge for up to 2 days. Reheat by sitting the bag in a bowl of just boiled water. The yolks will heat up within 30 secs or so. Carefully strain the yolks from the oil and dry on a J-cloth or kitchen paper to remove excess oil.
These can be used cold too. You can use duck fat or flavoured oils if preferred.