Cullen Skink recipe for new charity cookbook

I’ve recently been asked to contribute a recipe for a new cookbook which will be sold to raise cash for the charity Independent Age .

They provide friendship and financial support for older people on low incomes to help them remain independent in their own homes and I’m delighted to be able to help out in this small way.

The cookbook isn’t due out until September but will contain contemporary recipes which learn the lessons of wartime cooks as the book’s publication will coincide with the 70th anniversary of WWII.

With limited ingredients in mind I’m going to pass them this recipe for a traditional Scottish soup which is essentially fish and potato.

I first tried Cullen Skink when I was working in Aberdeen and it is a traditional favourite along that north east stretch of coastline.

Made of “finnan haddie” it’s also the sort of simple, warming dish visitors might find at my (very independent) granny’s croft on Orkney and so it seemed fitting entry.

I’ll be bringing more news about the book as it nears completion later in the summer but for now, please do enjoy some Cullen Skink.

Cullen, named after the town in north east Scotland, and Skink, meaning stew, is one of those sustaining soups best suited to windswept coastal locations.

The fish used should properly be the lightly salted and smoked undyed variety – which is much more delicate than the orangey coloured version we’re used to encountering in English fishmongers – and definitely worth seeking out to get the full flavour of this dish.

What you need
450g undyed smoked haddock
1 finely chopped onion
750ml of milk
200g of buttery mashed potato
Salt and pepper
1 bay leaf.
Salt and white pepper.
Small handful of chopped parsley to garnish.

What you do
1. Skin the smoked haddock and cover with just enough boiled water to cover it.
2. Bring to the boil and then add the chopped onion and bay leaf.
3. Remove the haddock once it’s cooked and remove the bones but continue boiling the stock with the bones added for an hour.
4. Break up the fish into a dish.
5. Strain the stock and put back to the boil. Boil the milk in a separate pot and then add to the stock along with the fish.
6. Add the salt and boil for several minutes then add the mashed potato to a smooth consistency.
7. Add pepper and parsley to serve.

Do we need quite so many TV dinners?

Just browsing the choices for an evening of viewing tonight – a choice of four foodie programmes to choose from. Four on one night – has the country really become obsessed with cooking?

In many ways that would be no bad thing; Britain, a nation of food lovers raising expectations, standards and diets.

This evening, we’ve got the high-end cuisine of Great British Menu (BBC2, 6.30pm), the exotic in the form of the Hairy Bikers in Namibia (BBC2 9.45pm) and the basic in yawn of Nigella making easy breakfast dishes (BBC2, 8.30pm). (Pleeeease, no more egg boiling surely).

Then on the other side, MPW returns with a celebrity Hell’s Kitchen (ITV1, 9pm).

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a pretty avid fan of such shows but isn’t this a bit of overkill? Barely leaves enough time to actually cook or eat anything!

One food genre show it’s hard to miss though is Come Dine With Me. Last night’s trip around Blackpool with such unlikely dinner dates as a B&B landlady (serving lager in cans is just sooo classy, don’t you think!), a drag queen, a restaurant manager and a chips-n-egg type bloke with a capital B was sure to make good TV.

But oddly enough it’s not just the clashing  egos and the regular moments of cringeworthy pretentiousness which make the programme such compulsive viewing.

It’s also proving to be one of the most useable of the shows for realistic cooking with all the dishes being created in people’s ordinary kitchens with normal equipment and ingredients showing how non-professionals often achieve some stunning results.

3 days, 3 cities, 3 (very different) restaurants

This week I’m just back from a whirlwind foodie adventure which I organised for a surprise 40th birthday celebration. Getting everything arranged meant seeking out great places to eat in three cities and involved countless internet searches – but couldn’t have been achieved without a little help from Twitter to put together an itinerary to delight. Here’s a trio of recommendations;

San Carlo is every bit as busy and blingy as you’d ever want a venue to celebrate a special occasion to be. Thankfully you can forget the credit crunch and sit back to enjoy good food and wine plus plenty of people watching. It’s still OK to dress up, get your hair done, splurge on the fake tan (or perhaps go for plastic surgery) and order oysters and Champagne here – and it’s still necessary to book. The food is consistently good and is actually reasonable value too – well cooked traditional Italian with an emphasis on seafood. I enjoyed the spaghetti shellfish with a good kick of chili after sharing plates of interesting bruschetta and those ultra fresh oysters, but those with less of a fishy hankering are also well catered for with a good selection of meat and veggie dishes. With food quality and atmosphere scoring highly, my only criticism of this restaurant is the high-handed (maybe even disdainful) front-of-house service. While every z-lister and wanna-be starlet gets a personal welcome and booth seating, those of us who save up for a special night-out get treated less well – harried to order and even special birthday pleas (phone, email, in person) ignored.(More on that issue here).  About £10-£15 for mains.

The Frontline Restaurant. In a complete contrast, there’s no place for the fur-coat-and-no-knicker brigade with this place. It’s all about real food. As many of the ingredients as possible are sourced from the restaurant’s own farm and its unusual raison d-aitre (started life as a club where war correspondents could relax and eat out) make this a special eaterie that I’ve looked forward to visiting since hearing about it via Twitter (@noodlepie). I wasn’t in the slightest bit disappointed. A plate of hot smoked salmon followed by the sort of cottage pie that makes you feel instantly looked after and comforted were the order of the day for me. This is straightforward food – think pork belly, black pudding, pies and bakes but executed in such a way that the quality of the ingredients is all important. Another plus is the wine policy – not only is the list overseen by Oz Clarke Malcolm Gluck, but wines are available by the glass and at sensible prices. The Sauvignon Blanc (available by the glass for £7) was particularly noteworthy. Surrounded by stunning photography the atmosphere is relaxed but refined and the service is attentive and helpful. Will definitely beat a path there again. About £10-£15 for mains.

A city renowned worldwide for its quality food and arrogant waiters. Well so the stereotype goes but our reality at Chez Astier may have been correct on the former but certainly not the latter.  According to a French friend who helpfully booked our table in advance, this restuarant is “typical” with its jaunty checkeckered tablecloths and closely packed bentwood chairs. We plumped for the set menu – not speaking French this helps! 33Euros for four ccourses including cheese. More on the cheese later. Starters of soup (sorry “veloute”) and aspapargus were nothing to write home about but the mains of perfectly cooked melt-in-the-mouth meat dishes with creamy parsnip puree or potatoes and deep sauces were what we’d hoped for from French cuisine. Then came the cheese course – before the dessert. I’ve never seen a cheese board like it – and maybe I will go through life never experiencing such a thing again. If you can imagine your local supermarket cheese counter for quantity on display,  then replace every sweaty coloured Chedder with the artisan cheeses you might find at a Farmer’s Market, you’ve come somewhere close. We sampled so many – a soft, sweet cheese with a plump raisain surround, a bumptious camembert, blue cheese with the piquancy of Christmas, cheese with rinds, hard cheeses – ohlala monsieur! Service was helpful, friendly even, and the entire experience one of warm delight. Thanks to Twitter friend @louisebolotin for this recommendation which I’m very happy to pass on.