[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]
Final July, I took a visit to Alaska as a media visitor of Alaska Seafood, the public-private partnership between the state of Alaska and the Alaska seafood business. A couple of days into the journey, we had been out on a ship not too removed from Homer, reeling huge floppy halibut onto the deck, and all I may take into consideration was Cullen skink, Scotland’s smoky fish chowder.
This was, admittedly, a bizarre factor to be considering of, since Cullen skink is constructed from haddock, not halibut, however brains make humorous connections typically. I think about the shared “h” of halibut and haddock had one thing to do with it and in addition the truth that they’re each white-fleshed fish. Alaska’s pristine mountains and chilly summer time air additionally in all probability stirred up recollections of a long-ago winter journey to the rugged Scottish Highlands. Alaska is magnitudes extra huge, however these northern climes have one thing in frequent.
It is taken me some time to get round to really making Cullen skink and growing a recipe of my very own, however I am lastly right here with one, and—shock!—I’ve labored out a way that permits you to smoke different white-fleshed fish, like halibut, in case you do not wish to observe down the smoked haddock wanted for the recipe.
About that smoked haddock: It goes by the title finnan haddie, named for Findon, Scotland, a fishing village close to Aberdeen, and the fish itself. Craig Claiborne as soon as wrote a colourful story concerning the origins of finnan haddie, nevertheless it’s virtually too good to be true, the form of apocryphal story that just about each household from Findon would possibly declare as their very own. It is nonetheless value studying. (And who is aware of? Possibly it truly is the story of how they began smoking haddock in Findon.)
I ordered finnan haddie samples from a pair totally different US-based purveyors, and my favourite was from Stonington Seafood in Maine. Its thick fillets of haddock are a deep golden colour with a wealthy wood-smoke aroma. They don’t seem to be low cost, at greater than $20 per pound, however the high quality is difficult to argue with; it is simply lovely smoked fish.
I can not stress how particular this fish is and what it does to the soup. Consider clam chowder made with bacon, however think about all the flavour, each the smoke and the marine components, coming from a single ingredient, so the result’s each cleaner and no much less complicated. Add to that huge, meaty flakes of fish, and Cullen skink begins to provide clam chowder a run for its cash. One may argue that Cullen skink is nice sufficient to slug it out within the battle for the best chowder on the planet and have an opportunity of profitable (it will lose, nonetheless, in a tastiest-sounding-name contest).
It is value shopping for finnan haddie at the very least as soon as, to study its taste and see what magic it will possibly work in an in any other case very fundamental preparation. (It is also scrumptious for breakfast—poached in milk, drained, and served with melted butter poured on prime.) If ordering a cargo of finnan haddie is out of the query, you’ll be able to cold-smoke any lean white-fleshed fish—I performed round with a couple of indoor strategies—whether or not haddock or cod or, even, halibut.
Step one within the cold-smoking course of is to brine the fish in a sugar and salt resolution; then let the brined fish dry uncovered, which can dry out the floor. After that, it may be smoked. In case you personal a real cold-smoking equipment, you need to use that, following a extra conventional cold-smoking technique for fish. As a result of I did not have that, and figured most individuals do not, I targeted on indoor-safe strategies. I had excessive hopes for wok-smoking the fish, nevertheless it failed. I merely could not generate a sustained sufficient blast of smoke within the wok to succeed in the extent of smokiness within the fish wanted to make one thing like Cullen skink.
Earlier than smoking the fish, it’s briefly brined in a salt and sugar resolution with bay leaves and black peppercorns.
I had higher luck with the Smoking Gun, which, sure, is a chunk of kit you’d want to purchase, however then once more, you might go loopy smoking all types of issues with it in case you did get one. Even with the Smoking Gun, I had some hassle getting the fish smoky sufficient at first, for a similar motive because the wok. Having set it in a baking dish coated with plastic wrap, I simply could not get a prolonged sufficient blast of smoke on the fish to actually penetrate it.
However then I attempted placing the fish in a zipper-lock bag, filling that bag with smoke, and sealing it so the smoke and fish had been trapped in there collectively. Each 30 minutes, I stuffed the bag with a brand new blast of smoke, and after 5 rounds like that, the fish was getting fairly smoky; you might even go longer for deeper smoke taste. The one factor the Smoking Gun technique does not do is dry the fish out the way in which an actual cold-smoker does. You get the smoky taste, however you do not get fairly the identical texture and golden stain on the outside. Flaked right into a soup as it’s in Cullen pores and skin, that is not an excessive amount of of an issue.
Making the soup itself is an uncomplicated course of. I attempted to make it extra sophisticated, considering I may fancy up the soup in interesting methods, however some dishes resist some of these upgrades. I experimented with each the extra conventional technique of cooking after which roughly mashing some potatoes into the soup, and in addition a extra refined strategy of mixing a portion of the potatoes into it till silky easy and including the remainder as completely tender cubes, however my further efforts produced a extra soulless soup (one which was liable to curdling). The partially mashed potatoes are a lot extra interesting to eat, thickening the liquid whereas providing a spread of potatoey bites, from tiny tender mashy bits to huge comfortable chunks.
I attempted including leeks to the essential base of sautéed onions, however they tinged the soup inexperienced and made it too candy. I had different plans, ones that included white wine and spices and a wider vary of contemporary herbs, and one after the other they fell away as my take a look at batches proved that Cullen skink is finest while you embrace its lovely simplicity.
Prime row, poaching and draining actual finnan haddie in milk; backside row, poaching and draining do-it-yourself cold-smoked halibut.
The steps go like this: Poach the fish in milk till simply performed, and take away the fish and switch the milk to a different container. Wash the pan, then sweat minced onion in butter till tender. Again in goes the milk, adopted by diced potatoes, which you simmer till tender, then partially mash them up proper within the pot. The fish will get flaked again in, and the soup is completed with some cream, salt, and pepper.
The one semifancy contact that did work was a sprinkle of contemporary minced chives on prime. Even essentially the most rustic dishes may be dressed up only a contact.

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