Leaving Yuletide festivities of Epicurean proportions in my wake, I always find myself approaching the terminus of yet another year, with an overwhelming desire to reflect, push on through and start afresh. The doldrums of the season can often seem a little exasperating and although having achieved much over the past twelve months, as soon as the Boxing Day detritus is cleared away, I yearn for the starting blocks and even more so for 2017.
I’ve never been a massive fan of New Year celebrations, in fact I now find the raucous, enforced hand-wringing and snogging on the stroke of midnight, rather tiresome, to be brutally honest. I’d sooner enjoy the company of those most dear to me, in a reflective, but progressive, evening of honest, wholesome fare and wine, that still bears the hallmarks of tradition long past.
Hogmanay, is probably the festival that most epitomises that vital “fresh start” to the young year and being steeped in folklore, is far more an exciting and enjoyable a prospect for me, than some of the rather limp excuses for addled revelry, that I’ve been party to over time.
In the Scotland of yesteryear, the Christian, Christmas was much scorned, (if not prohibited) and gaiety and celebration reserved for the last day of the old year, whence the customs and traditions of the influencing Norse, French and Gaelic cultures, combined in an emblematic and ritual observance, with giving and welcome at its core.
“First Footing,” the act of passing a threshold, as the first visitor of the year (preferably a male, both tall and dark), bearing gifts of coal, salt, shortbread or whiskey, is said by Scots to set the tone for the coming cycle and be a portent of the luck to come. As a young man, I remember being required by our Scots neighbours, often to address this issue for them, clutching a black carbonic lump, entering their property shortly after midnight and having a large malt whiskey thrust warmly and gratifyingly into my hand.
So I do, wholeheartedly, embrace these Caledonian ceremonies and rites and although a complete “Sassenach”, I enthuse over any culture, where tradition and lore have so richly coloured their heritage. Food at Hogmanay obviously plays a pivotal role in its practice and over the years I’ve always enjoyed one particularly toothsome dish, which for me exemplifies the serenity of winter, the countryside at rest, and the heartiness of slow cooked and seasonal food.
Here then, is my take on Cullen Skink, the warming and chill-staving chowder, and an obviously popular staple north of Hadrian’s Wall, where in the semi-Alpine cold of a Scottish winter, folk can take heart that this easy to produce, delectable and nourishing soup has never waned in popularity. Traditionally made with haddock, I’ve added hake in too, which swims alongside the former on the North Sea grounds and notably, (in ever increasing number) and gorgeously delicate langoustines from Peterhead, adding a certain finesse to the mix.
Cullen Skink with Prawns (Langoustines)
Ingredients (enough for 4 people)
1 large onion (chopped)
1 leek (sliced)
2 sticks of celery (chopped)
2 cloves garlic (chopped)
1 litre full fat milk
A good glug of double cream
300ml shellfish (prawn) stock
1 small side natural smoked haddock (skinned)
1 small side natural smoked hake (skinned)
10-12 langoustine tails (fresh or frozen and peeled)
750g floury potatoes (e.g. Desiree, I used Stemster) in large dice.
Large handful of chopped fresh parsley
Freshly ground black pepper
Sea salt to taste
2 bay leaves
Firstly, just-poach the fish in the milk, with the bay leaves added and a good grinding of black pepper. I cook with an Aga and so covered in milk in the baking oven for 10 mins or lightly poached at 200+C will suffice. Drain, place on a warm plate and reserve the cooking liquor.
Peel the langoustine tails and reserve the shells for cooking up for stock.
Meanwhile, soften the chopped onion, leek and celery in 50g of the butter and add the diced potato. Grind in some black pepper. Stir and colour for about 10 mins until the onion and leek are nicely softened.
Now add the poaching milk from the fish and stir together and finally add the shellfish stock. Bring to the boil and then simmer on a low heat for about 20 mins or until the potatoes are cooked through.(I put in the simmering oven of the Aga for the same length of time).
Next melt the remaining butter in a small frying pan and add the chopped garlic, cooking steadily until you have almost a beurre noisette (nutty brown colour). Dry the langoustine tails on kitchen roll and sauté in the butter, until slightly caramelised on both sides, but not overcooked. Remove from the heat.
When the soup is done, return to a low heat, adding sea salt and ground black pepper to taste. Flake in the just-cooked fish in large chunks (checking for bones) and crush one or two of the potatoes with a wooden spoon to thicken the soup. Stir gently whilst heating everything through and add the sautéed langoustine tails, keeping a few back for garnishing. Now add in the double cream and combine with a large handful of chopped flat leaf fresh parsley. Simmer for another 10 mins and serve in bowls preferably with home-baked crusty white rolls.
Absolutely delicious and probably one of my favourite-ever seafood soups, that not only warms and gratifies but showcases both seasonal Scottish fish and vegetables in a true slow-cooked fashion.
Of course, the addition of langoustines is purely my indulgence, the soup works equally well without, but if seeing in the New Year in style, makes a wonderful way of welcoming the first guests of the year, whether tall and dark or no!
I wish you all the Happiest and most Prosperous of years.
Huge thanks to Jimmy Buchan at Skipper’s Choice for providing the haddock, hake and langoustines.