After over 20 years of living in Scotland, you would think by now I would have an inkling of what goes on at a Burns Night supper – the traditional get-together that celebrates the poet’s birthday on 25 January.
But to be honest, I don't have a scooby!
I know you drink whisky and eat haggis, neeps and tatties (that’s turnips and potatoes for those unfamiliar with Scottish ways) and someone speaks to the gathered throng in Old Scots brandishing a dagger.
I've been to a few as a professional photographer, and although interesting to photograph, the event itself leaves me somewhat bemused.
Perhaps you need to be Scottish, which I am not, to appreciate the cultural and historical importance of Burns Night.
I enjoy a bit of haggis, whether with the traditional neeps and tatties or mixed with some sausage meat and wrapped round a soft-boiled egg, coated in breadcrumbs and deep fried. A scotch egg from heaven.
But that's for another day. Cullen Skink is what I'm interested in.
Cock-a-leekie soup is the normal starter for a traditional Scottish occasion, but some suppers will give you a steaming bowl of Cullen Skink. This is a soup that isn't confined to Burns Night, nor should it be.
Just a quick word on what is one of the strangest recipe names around. It sounds bonkers but on closer inspection it is quite logical. Cullen, a town on the Banffshire coast in Scotland, is where the dish is a speciality. Seems fair enough, but Skink is either an old Gaelic name for broth or a smooth bodied lizard. I'll go with the former.
Cullen Skink is one of the great winter soups. Smoked fish, potatoes, leeks, onions, milk and stock.
And although it tastes really creamy, there is no cream in this recipe. Feel free to add a dash of cream if you fancy, but for me it makes the soup a bit too rich. I even prefer to use semi skimmed milk instead of whole milk as I don't think it makes much difference. It is still creamy enough for me.
And try to get the best quality smoked fish you can as this is the prime ingredient of the soup. I like smoked haddock best but you could use oak smoked cod or even Arbroath Smokies.
But please don't use the bright luminous yellow smoked haddock you see in some supermarkets. It will make your soup look as though it has come off the set of Teletubbies!
Finally, I like to add some good fish stock near the end to taste and balance the flavours. I don't want it too fishy or too creamy and I find this the best way to achieve that.
INGREDIENTS - serves 4
500g naturally smoked haddock
1 onion, chopped
2 leeks, roughly chopped
2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into large dice
A good knob of butter
Chives, chopped for garnish
Place the fish in a shallow pan and cover with the milk. Add the bay leaf and slowly bring to a gentle simmer for 5 minutes. The fish should be cooked and flake easily but if not just leave in the pan for a few minutes longer.
Drain and reserve the 'fishy' milk and keep the smoked haddock to one side.
Melt the knob of butter in another pan, add the onions and leeks, cover, and sauté gently without colouring for 5 minutes. Then add the diced potatoes and cook until starting to soften, about 10 minutes more. Season with some black pepper.
Add the reserved 'fishy' milk, about 250ml of good fish stock, and simmer until the potatoes are soft enough to crush between your fingers. The potatoes will help thicken the soup.
Remove half the potatoes, onion and leeks from the soup, leaving the remainder in the soup.
With a stick blender, blitz the soup well to a smooth consistency and then add the reserved potatoes, onions and leeks back in. The soup should be nice and thick. If you prefer a chunkier soup, only blend a third of the vegetables.
If it is too thick, just loosen with a bit of milk or fish stock.
Now is the time to reintroduce your flaked smoked fish back into the soup. Give a good stir around to heat through and check for seasoning. You may need a little salt but that depends on the strength of your smoked fish. Taste, taste, taste.
Sprinkle a few chopped chives on top before serving with some crusty bread.
I may not understand Burns Night, but I know a good soup when I taste one.