Evolution of a Dish
By: Katherine Perry
Finnan Haddie sounds to me like the saucy little-fish-kid sidekick in a Little Mermaid knock-off. Li’l Finnan would be orange, with a bright green tartan scarf and matching tam, and have two permanent dirt smudges under his big guppy eyes. He’d say, “But Mariel, how can I read the signs to the Brine Warlock’s ghoul museum with all this water in my eyes!”, and, “I bet they have awfully good food up at the Prince’s castle, Lubastian. Everything down here is too salty!”
In real life, Finnan Haddie does not look like that. It is not cute. It looks, in fact, like what you might find at the bottom of the well in Silence of the Lambs.
Luckily it tastes far better than it looks. Here in New England, Finnan Haddie refers both to the product, a salted and lightly smoked haddock, and the dish made from this haddock. The origin story of the product, Finnan Haddie, is attributed, like so many culinary successes, to happy, fiery accident. In a fishing village on the North Sea in Scotland, sometime around the early/mid-18th century, lore has it a curing in a house caught on fire, for presumably the one-millionth time. But this time, inside, salted haddock were laying helpless on beds of kelp. And when the “Maister” plucked one from the smoldering seaweed:
“He smelt it, while the curious group of his men around him watched his every move; he tore off a piece of the fish, and tasting it, took another bit, sagely nodded his head, and passed it over to the foreman, Sandy, saying, ‘Taste you it. Sandy! It is nae so nasty.’ This proved to be a great day in Port Lethen, for every fisherman in the town had a Haddie given him free of cost that had been cured by the smoke from the burning kelp, and from that time until the present no one in Port Lethen, or the greater fishing village a mile away, Findon, ever cured a Haddock except by smoking them over the burning seaweed.”
Oh, for simpler times, when a great day was just a handful of free haddock! My village is so jaded. The fish made its way to North America, retaining the Scottishism “Haddie” for haddock, with the lazy pronunciation of Findon prefixed on: Finnan Haddie. The first producers popped up in Massachusetts in 1850 and by the late 19th century Boston, and Portland, Maine had become haddie hubs –though they appear to have forsaken seaweed for plain old wood in their smoking process.
Recipes appearing in American cookbooks beginning in the late 1800s have Finnan Haddie prepared a number of ways: poached in milk and baked or broiled, flaked and mixed with potato and made into cakes, or served in a rich cream sauce with egg or cheese. I attempted the baking method from the earliest recipe I could find, Fannie Farmer’s 1896 The Boston Cooking School Cook-Book. A simple recipe which required a bit of decoding:
“Baked Finnan Haddie. Put fish in dripping-pan, surround with milk and water in equal proportions, place on back of range where it will heat slowly. Let stand twenty-five minutes; pour off liquid, spread with butter, and bake twenty-five minutes.”
Kathleen Fitzgerald helped me translate this into something executable; she and Keith Stavely are the authors of a number of works on culinary history, and also have an amazing blog cooking from historic recipes.
Fitzgerald wrote to me, “Back of the range,’ by which Farmer undoubtedly meant back of a coal (or wood) cookstove, implies a burner warm enough to heat the liquid but not so hot as to boil it. Back of the range is the root of the expression to put something on the back burner! So she’s indicating that you first poach the fish in the milk/water liquid.”
Of course, my stove has a lot less charm than one Farmer (or, considering the embellishments of this beauty, Fitzgerald suggests, Farmer’s rather rich neighbor) might have been using.
If you love smoked fish, jerky and chewing, you’ll love this. If not, be far more attentive than I to not over-cooking the haddie, and you’ll have a wonderfully flavorful dish that doesn’t require athletic eating.
Or, you can head towards the creamier variation–a decadent, silky and smoky dish, perfect comfort on a cold New England morning or evening alike. The most luxurious rendition I’ve tasted was at The Tinker’s Son in Norwell as part of their intimidating brunch offering: tender-firm Finnan Haddie swimming in a smoky sea of cream among caramelized onions and mushrooms, in an archipelago of mashed potato, topped with a volcano of sweet potato. That metaphor may be overdone, but I promise you that delicious seascape was not.
Brian Houlihan chef/owner of The Tinker’s Son in Norwell (and Bia Bistro in Cohasset) says that this rib-sticking version of Finnan Haddie (or as it’s known in his native Ireland, simply “smoked haddock”) was the one dish his mother made really well, and it seemed like a perfect addition to the menu of Irish and American classics: “I couldn’t believe it when I saw it on menus in restaurants here on the South Shore. It’s a great blend of my traditions and the area’s traditions,” says Houlihan.
One tradition Massachusetts appears to have given up is the actual smoking of haddock. It’s tough to find around here, but you can buy packages at Mullaney’s Harborside Fish Market in Scituate, which is where Houlihan gets his.
The Finnan Haddie is from Stonington Seafood in Maine, and it’s a wonderful product. But aren’t we pickling our own backyard chickens in our homemade cask kombucha these days? Surely we can smoke some haddies. In fact, the first one to present me with a homemade Finnan Haddie wins a tartan tam and prevents a delicious series of arsons in curing houses across the South Shore.
THE BOSTON COOKING-SCHOOL COOKBOOK. BY FANNIE MERRITT FARMER, PRINCIPAL OF THE BOSTON COOKING-SCHOOL. BOSTON: LITTLE, BROWN, AND COMPANY. 1896.
Baked Finnan Haddie
Put fish in dripping-pan, surround with milk and water in equal proportions, place on the back of range where it will heat slowly. Let stand twenty-five minutes; pour off liquid, spread with butter, and bake twenty-five minutes.
Broiled Finnan Haddie
Broil in a greased broiler until brown on both sides. Remove to a pan, and cover with hot water; let stand ten minutes, drain, and place on a platter. Spread with butter, and sprinkle with pepper.
The Tinker’s Son Finnan Haddie (As dictated by Chef/Owner Brian Houlihan, and written in the style of Fannie Farmer)
Simmer a fillet of Finnan Haddie in a well-seasoned, creamy white sauce, just until tender Mix in a hefty portion of caramelized onions and sautéed mushrooms. Top with mashed potatoes and baked just until browned