RECIPE: Cullen skink comes to America

Gary Maclean’s book makes Scottish cuisine accessible to home cooks in the U.S.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Earlier this summer, I received a press release about a soon-to-be-published cookbook, “The Scottish Kitchen,” by chef Gary Maclean.

As luck would have it, my husband and I had scheduled a weeklong trip to Scotland in early August.

In preparation for our first trek to this part of the U.K., I consumed Maclean’s book with the same voraciousness with which I have read all of Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” novels, admittedly my primary exposure to Scottish culture.

“Scotland’s larder has some of the world’s most sought-after food. Its phenomenal beef, fish and shellfish are unrivaled — from langoustines to black puddings, from hot smoked salmon to Shetland mussels,” Maclean writes, noting that, if you include all the islands, Scotland’s 11,000-kilometer coastline is vaster than those of Spain and France combined.

“The Scottish Kitchen” became as much a planning guide for our trip as our DK Eyewitness travel guide, serving as a gastronomic counterpart to the laminated fold-out map that would help us navigate Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and the stunning topography near the Summer Isles in the northwest Highlands.

Credit: Susie Lowe

Credit: Susie Lowe

Maclean is National Chef of Scotland, a title bestowed on him in 2017 by the Scottish Parliament. As part of his duties, he acts as an ambassador for Scottish cuisine. As such, in July he cooked for a roomful of mostly U.S. and Canadian academics at an “Outlander” conference in Glasgow, where fellow Scot Sam Heughan (who plays Jamie in the TV series) was present, Maclean said, and Gabaldon herself was “holding court and signing books.”

(Speaking of the “Outlander” TV series, Mclean told me: “Sam is mega-famous in the U.S. and Canada. In Scotland, he can walk the streets and no one would really bother him.”)

Gabaldon’s historical fantasy has contributed to romantic ideas of rugged, tartan-clad Highlanders, but another pop culture phenom also has influenced how outsiders view Scotland.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

“I think especially the younger generation of North Americans get most of their impression of Scotland from Groundskeeper Willie on ‘The Simpsons.’ He now and again mentions haggis,” Maclean said, referencing the sausage made from sheep’s offal, oats and seasonings. “Haggis is certainly our most famous dish, but it’s almost like a comedy, you know? It’s almost like a dare. I always imagine tourists going home from a trip to Scotland and telling their pals they were so brave that they had haggis.”

Let me tell you, pals, this “brave” American wolfed down many a traditional and modern take on haggis, often served with neeps (mashed turnips) and tatties (potatoes). The White Hart, a tavern on Grassmarket in Edinburgh, offers a delicious classic rendition of this threesome. And Number 27 Bar and Kitchen in Inverness has a hearty dish featuring a haggis-stuffed chicken breast, wrapped in Parma ham and served on a bed of black pudding mash with deep-fried haggis bon bons.

The dish that I was most keen to try, however, was Cullen skink, and not just because of the funky name. “The origins of Cullen skink go back to a small fishing village in the northeast of Scotland called Cullen,” Maclean writes in the book. “Skink is an old Scots word for shin or knuckle, and soups were often made from these cuts, hence it has developed the secondary meaning of a soup. So, in short, soup from Cullen.”

Cullen skink is a delightfully minimalist dish with just four main ingredients: smoked fish, milk, onion and potatoes. But, combined, the result is an ethereal, smoky, creamy chowder that gives the New England clam version a run for the money.

In fact, while preparing Cullen skink for a cooking demonstration during the New Hampshire Highland Games a few years ago, Maclean boasted to the crowd that “it’s better than your New England chowder.”

“I kind of lost the crowd for a couple of minutes,” Maclean told me, “so I made the soup and, unbeknownst to them, I had 300 portions prepared in the back that then came out at the end of the demonstration. They all agreed it was better.”

Traditionally, Cullen skink is prepared with cold-smoked haddock, but Maclean encourages substitutions.

Don’t sweat over whether the fish is hot- or cold-smoked, he said. Smoked cod, whiting or halibut — any firm white fish — will do. He has used smoked salmon to fine effect, too. However, he doesn’t include the bones when soaking salmon in milk, because they don’t impart much added flavor, and the high fat content can turn the liquid oily.

“For me, that recipe is not about getting too caught up in the detail,” Maclean said, recalling how he made do when preparing the dish in Cuba for that country’s first lady, Lis Cuesta Peraza. “I was kind of making the menu up, based on what I could find,” he said. “I smoked some fish using some wood from the garden. I don’t even know what the fish was, to be honest. It was a big fish. And I made Havana skink.”

How about a Georgia skink, perhaps with North Georgia smoked trout and Vidalia onions? Maclean is all for it.

Even though his role as a national chef is to champion Scottish products, “you’ve got to also be humble and use the ingredients that are available,” he said, recalling how his grandmother never followed written recipes. “She would go in the cupboard, and she would just understand the process.”

The trip to Scotland is over, but now that I understand the process, my adventures with skink have only just begun.

Credit: Susie Lowe

Credit: Susie Lowe

Cullen Skink

For occasions when Scottish chef Gary Maclean wants to elevate this simple smoked fish soup, he might add dried seaweed, onion powder or smoked bacon, or garnish it with caviar or a quail egg. Whether you keep your skink humble or make a royal rendition, Maclean advises to “just jam-pack it with fish. Don’t skimp.” Unlike better-the-next-day soups, this one is “best eaten straight away,” he said.

Excerpted from “The Scottish Kitchen” by Gary Maclean. Copyright 2022, Gary Maclean. Photographs by Susie Lowe. Published by Appetite by Random House, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Ltd. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

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