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March 5, 2014

Playing with tradition

Smoked fish lends big flavor to a light soup

With St. Patrick’s Day nearly upon us, our minds often turn to corned beef and cabbage. This recipe was inspired by that tradition, but swaps out the corned beef in favor of smoked fish (also incredibly popular in Ireland) in a richly satisfying savory broth.

Smoked fish happens to be one of my favorite “cheating” ingredients. Like bacon, it is a single ingredient that adds outsized oomph to any dish. Unlike bacon, smoked fish has no saturated fat. Add even a little bit of it, and suddenly the dish becomes the essence of comfort food and your guests think you’re a culinary genius.

In Ireland, they like to smoke mackerel, whitefish, salmon and haddock. Smoked haddock actually originates in Scotland, not Ireland, but the Irish have pulled it into the family circle. Me, too. As the child of New Englanders, I grew up with it, which is probably why it’s my favorite smoked fish.

My cabbage of choice here is either Napa or savoy. Both are relatively light with a delicate texture. Of course, regular green cabbage also works, as will red cabbage (assuming you don’t mind a pink soup), but you want to be careful not to overcook whichever cabbage is in the pot. Otherwise, things tend to get very funky very quickly.

Now on to the potatoes and the leeks. Easy and cheap to grow, high in minerals and vitamins, and delicious no matter how they’re cooked, potatoes have been a staple in Ireland for hundreds of years. In this recipe, the potatoes absorb the smokiness of the fish and also provide bulk. The leeks add a distinct and subtle flavor all their own, but you can swap in onions — the leek’s ubiquitous cousin — if you have trouble finding leeks.

The liquid is a combination of low-fat milk and chicken stock. Why use chicken stock in a fish soup? Because I’ve never found a commercial fish stock to my taste. Likewise, I’m no fan of commercial clam juices, which are too high in sodium. In any case, the liquid required some kind of stock because those soups made only with dairy are too rich for me. Then again, I don’t like a soup that’s too thin either, which is why this one is thickened into creaminess the old-fashioned way — with just a touch of flour.

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