Autumn is a season of nostalgia. The increasingly visible signs of withdrawal, decay, and release of the old in Nature is reflected in our thoughts and feelings, shifting in accord, to reminiscence of times gone by, and yearning for the simple comforts of home. The old cedar chest creaks open to reveal the store of sweaters, scarves, and wool socks that were put up in early Spring. The aroma of mulled cider wafts through the kitchen. It’s like meeting old friends again. So too does this season evoke warming and comforting heritage foods.
What could be more nostalgic than the image of bannocks on the girdle and a pot of delicious stew simmering in a cast iron cauldron by the hearth fire? In Celtic cultures, the hearth was the sacred center of the home, where vital fire lived and was not allowed to fully extinguish, except perhaps Beltaine and Samhain. This fire carried the “luck of the house”; by its light and warmth the folk gathered, food was shared, stories told, and tradition was passed down through the generations.
A perfect dish for this time of year as you delight in the solace of your own home’s hearth, in whatever form that may be, is “Cullen Skink”.
A what, what? Isn’t a skink a lizard? Well, it may be in Kentucky, but Cullen Skink is a classic Scottish seafood dish. Traditionally made with smoked haddock, potatoes, and onions, this creamy chowder is hearty and delicious, with a delectable smoky flavor.
Cullen Skink takes its name from Cullen, a historic, small fishing village in the Moray area of the Northeast Coast of Scotland, where the bulk of the fishing fleet lies. Skink in this context is a Scots word for soup made from a gobbet of meat. To be really historically authentic, the famous finnan haddie should be the specific smoked haddock used for Cullen Skink, but if you are unable to source that, substitute with another smoked cold northern seas fish. It will still taste great!
To make Cullen Skink, have two pots ready, one in which to poach the fish, and another for the bulk of the finished chowder once all is combined. As you cook, remember to stir deosil (sunwise), to invite blessings of good health and prosperity.
1/2 lb. finnan haddie or other smoked fish
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 small leek, rinsed and thinly sliced
2 medium potatoes, peeled and large diced
1 and 1/4 cup water
3/4 cup whole milk
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons butter
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
Handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Start by placing the butter in medium-heat pot, adding the onions and leeks, just a pinch of salt, and a few grinds of fresh pepper. Sauté for about 5 minutes, just until the onions and leeks begin to soften and sweat. Do not caramelize or get colour on them.
They should just be lightly translucent and softened. Add in the potatoes. Stir to combine, simmer another couple of minutes, then add one cup of water. Stir well and let simmer for approximately 15 minutes.
Once you set your onions, leeks, and tatties to simmer...
Place your fish in a sauce pot with the milk and cream. Bring to a gentle simmer for about 10-15 minutes. Do not simmer too vigorously or boil; you do not want the milk and cream to scald, or the fish to break apart into wee bits.
For final production, gently fold the fish, milk, and cream into the pot with the onion, leeks, and potatoes. Stir to combine, being careful not to tear up the fish - wait until this has all simmered together for another 15 minutes or so, then with final tasting adjustments for salt and pepper, break apart the fish into chunky bite sized pieces. The potatoes should be tender enough that some have fallen apart and helped thicken the consistency, while others are still bite-sized.
Stir in the handful of chopped parsley. Let everything “rest” for a few minutes, then ladle generously into bowls. Makes 4 servings.
So warm up your cauldron, and put to simmer on the hob some homemade Cullen Skink. It’s so good it’ll make you slacken your cinch for a second helping. And don’t forget bread for soppin’!