Jan. 25 is Burns Night, as anyone with even the most tenuous connection with the land of haggis and whisky (no “e” in Scottish whisky) will scarcely need reminding.
There’s nothing mysterious about the great chieftain o’ the pudding race: The haggis is really just a large fat sausage prepared by thrifty Highland housewives to stock the store cupboard through the winter. The main ingredients are those widely available in the region: mutton and oatmeal. Just the same, liver and lights stuffed into a sheep’s stomach with onions and porridge might not be everyone’s idea of a dainty dinner, but when properly prepared and well-seasoned with pepper and thyme, it’s surprisingly delicious.
Robert Burns, poet of beauty and romance, would have been surprised by the manly shenanigans attached to his annual birthday celebration. As for the tartan dress code, I have it on good authority that those who fought the Battle of Culloden wore khaki-colored blankets round their nether parts, preserving modesty with a leather strap. Chilly but practical.
No Burns Night complete without haggis
No matter. The shenanigans are here to stay, and there’s no reason to let authenticity spoil the fun. The only essential is the haggis (and the whisky of course). To stuff your own, full instruction can be found in F. Marian McNeill’s “The Scots Kitchen” (Edinburgh, 1929), including emptying out the lungs by hanging the windpipe over the edge of the boiling pot and letting it drain. Much of Ms. McNeill’s more esoteric information is credited to Mistress Meg Dodds’ “The Cook and Housewife’s Manual” (Edinburgh, 1826). Mistress Meg is feisty fictional landlady of the Cleikum Inn in Sir Walter Scott’s novel “St. Ronan’s Well”; the author is really Edinburgh housewife Isabella Johnston and a close friend of Sir Walter Scott.
Confused? That’ll be the whisky.
Far better to save your energies for reciting poetry and get your haggis from the butcher, and so much better if it comes in natural casing — ox bung these days, I’m told. Trenching the gushing entrails through a plastic bag doesn’t really cut the mustard.
How to heat a haggis
A ready-made haggis is already fully cooked but needs careful reheating. To serve four natives or six sassenachs (anyone not born and bred in Scotland), you’ll need a 2-pound (1 kilogram) haggis. Allow the haggis to come up to room temperature, then place it gently in a roomy pot of boiling water. Return the water gently to a boil, allowing a single belch, and then cover it loosely and turn the heat right down till the water is barely trembling. Leave to simmer for half an hour then give it a squeeze — when it’s ready it’ll feel squidgy and hot. You can also wrap it securely in foil and heat for 30 to 40 minutes in a oven heated to 250 F (150 C or Gas 2).
The larger the haggis the longer it needs to heat. Once hot (and unpunctured) it can be held in simmering water for at least an hour. Accompany with clapshot — mashed potato and swede in equal volumes — or serve the two vegetables separately as neeps and tatties. On no account waste good whisky by pouring it over the haggis, whatever anyone says. Just smile politely and drink it yourself.
If your butcher has failed in his duty, a haggis mix can be cooked in a pan in much same way as a risotto. The pinhead oatmeal is important — it won’t work with ground or porridge oats. If you can’t find pinhead, give whole-grain oats a quick whiz in a spice grinder — don’t crush to a powder, you’re aiming for pinheads.
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound (500 grams) lamb’s liver or heart
3 cups (1 liter) water
1 pound (500 grams) onions, quartered
Salt to taste and plenty of freshly ground white pepper
4 ounces (100 grams) pinhead oatmeal
4 ounces (150 grams) grated suet (kidney fat, ask the butcher)
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1. Tidy up the meat — liver or heart — by removing visible tubes or veins. Rinse and pat dry.
2. Place the whole piece in a roomy pan with 3 cups (1 liter) of water and quartered onions. Season with salt and pepper, heat gently and simmer, loosely covered, for 30 to 40 minutes, until perfectly firm.
3. Meanwhile, toast the oatmeal in a low oven until lightly browned or stir over gentle heat in a heavy pan.
4. Remove the meat from the broth with a draining spoon, discarding the onion and reserving the liquid. Grate the meat and remaining onions through the large holes of a grater, or pulse in the processor. Stir the grated meat and onion with the toasted oatmeal, suet, thyme, salt and pepper.
5. Now you have a choice: You can either pack the mixture into a bowl (it should come about a third of the way up), moisten it with 2 cups of the reserved stock and cover the bowl with a cloth tied on with string, with the ends knotted over to give a handle (or cover with foil). Place the bowl on an upturned saucer in a roomy saucepan, add enough boiling water to come two-thirds of the way up, lid the pan and leave it to simmer for 2 hours. Check and add more boiling water as necessary. Alternately, you can cook the mixture in a heavy saucepan, adding hot stock and stirring throughout as you would a risotto.
6. Serve with clapshot.
Top photo: Haggis and whisky, the staples of any Burns Night supper. Credit: Elisabeth Luard