Monday, October 22, 2012

Finnan Haddie (Ontario style)

Dearest autumn, blessed autumn. You have finally darkened my doorstep with an afternoon sunset and feathered frost. Good riddance to the withering heat of high summer. With this change of season, I can use my oven again without melting the linoleum. What better way to celebrate these chilling, bug-killing October nights than with a hot cauldron of soup!

Now picture an iron-grey, foaming North Atlantic. Despite seas too dangerous to venture out in, the ancient mariners need to fill their nets, and fill them they do. The day grows long. Eventually, cold and wet, the fisherman come in from the weather, bringing with them the smell of wet wool and sea spray. This is the fanciful image I conjure up when I think of fish soup. Not Marseilles with its turquoise, temperate water, golden sunshine and bouillabaisse. No, only a North Atlantic style fish soup will do for me during a Canadian autumn.

And there's certainly more than one way to get some fish into some soup.

The most important difference between a North American style 'chowder' and the fish soups of Scotland and north west England is the smoke. In New England, the smoke is usually some form of salty pork product, often bacon. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, the approach on the other side of the pond is to bring the smoke by way of the actual fish. Finnan Haddie and Cullen Skink not only have terribly quaint names, but are also both delicious soups that contain some kind of cold-smoked fish, potatoes and a warm, creamy broth.  These dishes take their names from the places in which they were supposedly born: Finnan and Cullen refer to the place. Haddie refers to haddock; smoked haddock to be precise, and skink, well, as much as that word does not inspire an appetite, it nevertheless comes from an old Gaelic colloquial term for soup (it can also mean 'roast' - who ever said etymology made sense?).  I don't live by the sea, but I live on a peninsula that is completely surrounded by great lakes and connected by cold rivers. Plenty of fish here. No haddock, but lots of trout. I made up a batch of trout chowder some time ago using left over roast trout. This time, in an effort to make a proper skink, I found some cold-smoked trout at the new fish monger in Kensington Market, Hooked Inc. This bit of fish lent itself very well to my take on Finnan Haddie. Oh by the way, if you're keeping track, everything in this soup was grown or procured within an hour's drive of my home. How's that for home team advantage?

Smoked Trout Chowder

1 litre fish stock (see note below)
1 fillet of cold-smoked trout
4 large russet potatoes, peeled and chopped into chunks
3 large onions, sliced thinly
1 rib of celery, diced very finely
2 bay leaves
Butter for sauteing
Some fresh dill

First, sweat your onions and celery in some butter until they are soft and translucent but have not taken on any colour. Then toss in your potatoes and bay leaves and mix everything around a bit.  Pour in the fish stock and give everything a bit of a swirl. The smoked fish I bought had some skin on it. If yours does, carefully peel it away from the flesh and gently drop it into your soup. It will infuse the soup with a lovely smokey flavour. Let it bubble away gently with cover on until the potatoes are tender. Russet potatoes, being a floury potato, will actually start to break down in the liquid. This will thicken the soup nicely without any need of flour, however, be gentle when stirring so that your spuds don't completely break apart - you want their texture to retain as much as possible. Once the potatoes are tender, gently fish out the trout skin, along with the bay leaves and discard. Then turn the heat off completely and flake in the smoked trout. The residual heat from the soup is all that is required to cook it through. Let it stand for a good five minutes so that the flavours infuse. Check for seasoning and add a goodly amount of black pepper. Finish with your dill sprigs and feel free to pour in some cream at the last moment.

Fish Stock

If you can, always buy a whole fish and learn to fillet it. This way, you'll have a freezer full of fish heads and backbones. To make a litre or so of fish stock, one trout head with backbone will suffice. Get it into some cold, clean water with two bay leaves, a whole onion cut in half (keep the skin on), one whole garlic clove (skin on) and one small carrot, split. A few peppercorns and a good pinch or two of salt will close the deal. Simmer, covered, for about 35 minutes. Strain it all out through a fine muslin cloth, into a clean saucepan and reduce it slightly by boiling hard for five to seven minutes.

(Yes, I know the photo looks the same as my last chowder - the afternoons are getting darker - I couldn't get a good shot in natural light, so I'm recycling. Let's face it - the difference between the two dishes is taste - they actually look identical)

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