Smoked fish happens to be one of my favourite "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 favourite 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 flavour 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.
In the end all of the ingredients come together beautifully, if I do say so myself. Add a tossed green salad and a pint of Guinness, and you can call it a meal.
HEARTY POTATO, CABBAGE AND SMOKED FISH SOUP
Start to finish: 50 minutes (25 minutes active)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large leek, white and green parts, medium chopped (about 2 cups)
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 pound Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 cups 1 per cent milk
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
4 cups shredded Napa or savoy cabbage
1/2 pound smoked fish fillets (trout, whitefish, haddock or mackerel), skin discarded, fish coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
Thinly sliced scallions, to garnish
Smoked paprika, to garnish
In a large saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the butter. Add the leek and cook, stirring, until very soft but not colored, about 10 minutes. Add the flour and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Increase the heat to high, add the broth in a stream, whisking, and bring to a boil.
Add the potatoes, milk and thyme, then bring the mixture to a simmer. Cover partially and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are just tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in the cabbage and simmer until tender, about 3 minutes. Add the fish and lemon juice and cook just until the fish is heated through. Season with salt and pepper. Ladle into bowls and garnish with scallions and a sprinkle of paprika.
Nutrition information per serving: 360 calories; 100 calories from fat (28 per cent of total calories); 11 g fat (6 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 70 mg cholesterol; 38 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 9 g sugar; 26 g protein; 380 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."