After the excesses of festive eating, I long for simple food – plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables plus the delicate flavours of fish with its gentle, soothing texture. Fish soups come high on my list of desirable dishes at this time of year when the cold seas surrounding the British Isles produce some of the finest fish in the world.
An individual white porcelain tureen served in possibly the smallest restaurant in Soho recently reconfirmed my love of Cullen Skink. The soup was prepared by Scottish chef, Neil Borthwick who, following years working in Michelin-starred restaurants in France, is admirably suited to running the upstairs dining room at The French House in Dean Street.
But, in cooking one of his own heritage dishes, Neil Borthwick rejected any French touches and retained the beautiful simple harmony of this famous Scottish soup.
The legendary Marion McNeill describes Cullen Skink in The Scots Kitchen as “A cottage recipe from the shores of the Moray Firth.” The soup is made with undyed smoked haddock and diced potatoes poached in a well-flavoured milk-based stock with a scattering of chopped parsley – an unbeatable combination to produce one of the most delicious and sustaining dishes I know.
When I first served Cullen Skink to French friends in Saint Montan they were smitten and requested that I prepare it again a few days later.
SCOTTISH CULLEN SKINK
A generous bowl of Cullen Skink is a meal in itself.
500 g/1 lb 2 oz undyed smoked haddock
1 shallot or small onion, peeled and finely chopped 1 trimmed leek, washed and finely sliced
500 ml/18 fl oz full-cream milk
2 large waxy potatoes such as Desirée, peeled
2 handfuls of parsley leaves
freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
Rinse the fish briefly in cold water and place in a large shallow pan, cut into pieces if need be. Add the chopped shallot, sliced leek and the bay leaf. Pour over half the milk and place over low heat, bring almost to the boil. Turn off the heat, cover the pan and leave while the potatoes are prepared.
Cut the potatoes into dice about the size of your thumb nail. Cook in the remaining milk – if need be adding a little water to just cover the vegetable – and cook until tender but not mushy.
Lift out the fish, remove and discard the bay leaf and any fish skin. Cut the fish into small pieces and return to the pan, add the potatoes with their cooking liquid. Mash 2 tablespoons of the cooked potatoes to slightly thicken the soup liquid.
Add the chopped parsley and slowly bring the soup to serving temperature. Check the flavour, the fish usually contributes sufficient salt to season the soup though I sometimes add a little freshly grated nutmeg. Serve the soup straight away in large bowls with big spoons.
Another of my favourite fish soups is a classic Prawn Bisque that features on restaurant menus in the fishing ports of Normandy and Brittany.
FRENCH PRAWN BISQUE
The prawn shells are cooked in white wine and water then crushed and sieved to contribute a depth of flavour to this fine fish soup.
500 g/ 1 lb 2 oz prawns, cooked or raw
90 g/ 3 oz unsalted butter
150 ml/5 fl oz dry white wine e.g. Muscadet
150 ml/5 fl oz water
1 fat clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped white end of a leek, washed and finely chopped 1 medium carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1 stick celery, finely chopped
bouquet garni or good pinch of herbes de Provence 1 litre/ scant 2 pts vegetable stock or water
1 tablespoon tomato puree
1⁄4 teaspoon harissa paste or chilli sauce
150 ml/ 5 fl oz single cream
salt to taste
splash of Calvados or apple brandy (optional)
1 tablespoon finely chopped chives
smoked chilli flakes
Peel the prawns, tip the shells into a pan and the prawns into a colander for rinsing briefly in cold water then leave to drain.
Add half the butter, the wine, and water to the prawn shells and bring to the boil, simmer for 5 minutes then set aside until tepid. Pour the contents of the pan into a food processor and whizz until well crushed. Tip the mixture into a very fine sieve over a bowl and press down with a wooden spoon to extract all the liquid – if it is still gritty pour the liquid through a fine cloth (Prosper Montagné recommends a silk cloth!) or a coffee filter to remove any gritty particles.
In the rinsed pan, melt the rest of the butter and stir in the chopped garlic, vegetables and bouquet garni or herbes de Provence. Cover the pan, lower the heat for 3-4 minutes to allow the vegetables to cook slightly. Add the vegetable stock or cold water, bring to the boil and simmer until the vegetables are cooked. Discard the bouquet garni, add most of the cooking liquid to the prawn shell broth.
Roughly chop the prawns and add to a procssor with a few tablespoons of the stock, process until you have a smooth puree. Then pour most of the vegetable liquid into the prawn stock and add the cooked vegetables to the prawn puree and whizz until smooth.
Add a few tablespoons of stock to the processor to slacken the mixture then pour into a large pan and stir in both prawn and vegetable cooking liquid.
Stir in the tomato paste and the harissa and bring almost to the boil, then season to taste and stir in the cream. Pour the soup into a tureen, sprinkle the chopped chives and the chilli flakes on top and serve.