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Cullen Skink and thoughts about cooking fish

Patricia has cooked many pots of Cullen Skink for me, her brother and her late father in the eleven years weíve known each other. Itís a simple, warming, comforting Scottish soup made, basically, with smoked haddock, potatoes, onions and milk. I decided to have a go myself recently, first because she was out being a busy Granny and would therefore probably be home late and in need of something tasty but undemanding - and second because I had been thinking hard about the best way to cook delicate white fish.

Some time ago, we saw Gary Rhodes cooking smoked haddock on TV, and he recommended just pouring boiling milk over it and leaving it to cook in the residual heat. This seemed to make sense, because almost every time I cooked fresh cod or smoked haddock I felt it was over-cooked.

So I put a litre of full-fat milk (skimmed or semi-skimmed would have been silly, given how much butter I was going to use) in a pan with four fresh bay-leaves from the garden, a teaspoon of roughly-crushed fennel seeds (not traditional but a classic flavouring for fish) and a good sprinkle of ground white pepper - no salt, because I didnít know how much the fish would have. I brought this gently to the boil and reduced it to a gentle simmer.

Meanwhile, I cut a good big fillet of natural, undyed smoked haddock into small enough chunks to fit in the pan. Then I turned off the gas, waited a minute and put the pieces of fish in the milk, pushed them down below the surface and put the lid on.

While I waited for the milk to cool, I sliced a large onion thinly and roughly chopped a couple of cloves of garlic (again, not a traditional ingredient). I then cooked these very gently in a lot of butter (because I hoped to absorb it into the soup) until sweet, tender but not coloured before pouring the lot into the blender. Next, I peeled a couple of large-ish potatoes - enough for a good portion each - and cut them first into slices, then into chips and finally into dice about a centimetre each way. I sorted the bits into neat, tidy dice and other more randomly-shaped chunks. Using the scales, I made minor adjustments until I had equal weights of neat-and-tidy and scruffy.

I put the scruffy bits in our ancient plastic microwave pan with a splash of water, put on the ventilated lid and set the Panasonic microwave to the right weight of fresh veg. This isnít as clever as my old Panasonic Genius, which you could program to detect the first burst of steam from all sorts of different foods and then calculate the remaining cooking time. I donít know why theyíve discontinued that, because it was amazingly accurate. Plus it had a three way setting for over, dead-on and under. Please bring it back, Panasonic...

When cooked, the potato bits and the residual water were tipped into the blender and whizzed to a smooth, velvety purťe with the onions, garlic and butter.

Then the remaining potatoes - the tidy dice - were cooked the same way. The water was drained off into the blender (waste not - want not) and the potatoes left beside the cooker.

By this time, the fish was cool enough to handle, so I lifted the pieces out of the warm milk onto a board. The smell was lovely, and the fish was perfect for peeling off its skin, which went straight back into the milk, and breaking-up gently into flakes and/or chunks, checking very carefully for any bones lurking between the flakes. These had gone from translucent to opaque white and were glossy, even a little pearly, when separated. Thanks, Gary! Youíre a bit precious as a TV chef, but you really know what youíre talking about! (Have you tried Garyís method for chips? Brilliant!) The fish was put in a basin, covered with clingfilm and stowed in the fridge.

The milk was brought back to the boil and simmered with the herbs and the fish skin for a few minutes, then left to cool again. All the bits were sieved out, and some of the milk was used to half-fill the blender.

We recently got one of these new combination machines with a stout glass blender and a small food-processor, which has saved us a lot of time hauling the huge Magimix 5100 out just to use the mini-processor. Itís a hybrid beast, the motor unit and the food-processor being labelled Waring - a professional brand rather than a consumer one - and the blender CuisinArt (ditto). It looks very like the kit we?ve seen used on Saturday Kitchen and MasterChef lately. It has loads of buttons: on, off, pulse, stir, chop, mix, purťe and food-processor. Stir is the slowest and food-processor the fastest, with the rest in the order Iíve typed them here. The machine doesnít have anything like soft-start, so it tends to splash the liquid to the top - and often out - of the goblet if you just push one of the buttons. So Iíve learned to press on, then pulse, which means that any of the others will only run the motor until you take your finger off. Then I press stir for a second, move to chop before the contents stop moving, and then on up to either purťe or food-processor, which is what I did with the soup-base. Once the puree was beautifully smooth, I tipped it back into the pan and whisked it into the rest of the milk before adding the diced potatoes.

Job done. Plenty of time to wrap the smelly bits up and dump them in the outside bin, wash up all the utensils, defrost a couple of demi-baguettes, set the table and chill out.

When Patricia finally got back from her Grannying duties - thrilled to bits with the wee boy but absolutely knackered - it only took a few minutes to finish the soup. I warmed it fairly slowly, stirring to avoid any burnt bits, and when it was simmering I had a taste. I then added Marigold vegetable bouillon powder, whisking in and tasting again until just right. This stuff is truly wonderful - it adds some salt, but plenty of other quite delicate flavours too. I also grated in a little nutmeg, using the finest of the three MicroPlane graters Iíd generously bought Patricia for Christmas (marvellous tools!). Next, the diced spuds went in for a five-minute simmer to heat them right through. Then, finally, with the gas off, the flaked fish: straight in, a gentle stir and on the table to serve. My theory was that the chilled fish would cool the soup enough to ensure that it was warmed but got absolutely no more cooking.

The verdict? Excellent. Patricia approved of the nutmeg but wasnít quite so sure about the fennel. However, she agreed that the fish was perfectly cooked.

I really think we need to give our fish more care in this kind of cookery. Iíve been making variations on an Italian fish stew we saw Theo Randall cook on Saturday Kitchen recently, and Iíve been giving serious thought to how the various fish in that should be cooked. I give chunks of monkfish, which is very meaty and can get a bit gristly, about three minutes at the simmer. Cooked king-prawns and the mixed seafood salad we found in Morrisons last week go in fridge-cold when the stew is off the heat. And live mussels get cooked in a small amount of the sauce just until they open before being tipped into the cooling stew.

Try this approach. Itís really rewarding.

Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.

This site was transferred in June 2005 to the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, and has been developed and maintained there ever since.