When I was told we’d be celebrating our Rambling Restaurant Burns Night with poetry, whiskey, and homemade haggis stabbing, my thoughts went like this:
1. Awesome! I’ve always wanted to try haggis.
2. By the way, what’s Burns Night?
3. And while I’m asking…what, exactly, is haggis?
4. A sheep heart, lung, and liver minced and mixed with oatmeal and onions and stuffed inside a sheep stomach? <gulp> We are definitely going to need that whiskey.
Haggis, to most ignorant Americans like myself, is one of those iconic Scottish associations like kilts, bagpipes, and Mel Gibson covered in blue facepaint and exuding a throaty roar for ‘FREEEEDOOOM!’ We might have heard of it but almost certainly wouldn’t be able to say what it’s made of, only that it has something to do with terrifying animal parts and probably shouldn’t ever be consumed until after seven shots of Scotch.
Well, let me set the record straight on two fronts.
1. As much as you may love William Wallace in a skirt, kilts weren’t invented for another three centuries (one of the many twists of truth contributing to Braveheart being second on a list of ‘most historically inaccurate’ movies ever made).
2. Haggis is, shockingly, absolutely delicious.
However, it took quite a long time and a lot of work to get it to that point. And I’ll be honest, there was a fair amount of grimacing, gagging, nose-holding, and are-we-really-serving-this-to-paying-customers?-questioning along the way. It all started with my haggis-making partner-in-crime, foodrambler, hunting in vain and then finally securing three lamb’s plucks – the windpipe, heart, lungs and liver – for our haggis adventure. Following this recipe from the Guardian by Tim Hayward, she began the adventure the previous evening by cutting out the windpipes (blecch), boiling the plucks for several hours then leaving them to cool overnight in the murky cooking liquid.
A rubbery white sheep heart above and a massive chunk of liver below. Not exactly the most appetizing start to a meal, is it? Don’t worry though, there is deliciousness to come…
Once out of the liquid and cut into cross-sections, the lungs were smooth and vaguely spongy while the heart was uncomfortably pink and muscly looking.
Being the intrepid culinary explorers/deluded masochists we are, we sliced off minute pieces of the heart, lung, and liver to taste them in all their unadulterated glory. I’m sure you’re not surprised, but this turned out NOT to be a good idea. Offal is generally not the most appetizing of foods when you haven’t added any additional seasoning or flavor. Then add in the fact that the innards were ice cold and straight out of a disturbingly sewage-colored meat bath and both of us ended up jumping up and down and squealing in disgust at the musty lumps of chilled sheep innards in our mouths.
Lesson learned, we returned to the daunting task at hand. Dicing six onions was the easy part. Next, we tossed the heart and lung into the food processor and pulsed it gently into a fine mince.
Next, we grated the liver in the food processor to avoid the pasty textured chunks from turning into pate. Here’s a photo from foodrambler’s haggis post of me working the magimix on the meat.
I think the expression on my face is veering between skepticism, bemusement, horror and disgust. Note how I am as far as humanly possible away from the food processor in a vain attempt to avoid directly inhaling the stench of chopped lamb bits. Below, the pungent strands of sheep liver.
All the dicing, slicing, and mincing of the heart, livers, and lungs began to fill the kitchen with a distinctly unpleasant smell. The thought crossed both our minds simultaneously: this smells exactly like cat food. Then the uncomfortable realization came to us…in fact, this is what cats eat. We are literally making cat food.
As you can see, it looked like cat food too. But just when we couldn’t really hold our noses much longer, we started mixing in the onions lying underneath the offal mince and all of a sudden, the smell changed. The sharp onion scent cut into the decaying meaty odor and the mixture somehow became warm and almost familiar, like the rich wafting steam of a slow-cooked stew. The transition was aided by the inclusion of a generous amount of salt, white pepper, sage, thyme, and mace (the outer layer of nutmeg) for a layered and wintry hint of spices.
The general smell of the kitchen was further enhanced by the comforting aroma of toasted oatmeal, both of the rolled and Irish steel cut variety, which we wacked into the oven until lightly browned and then added to the pot.
But haggis wouldn’t be complete without one last element of grossness and that came in the form of eight boxes of shredded dried suet.
I had to look up ‘suet‘ on wikipedia to even find it in the grocery store – in case you’re wondering, it’s the raw fat that surrounds beef kidneys. It looks like rodent turds made of candle wax.
Once we’d added a few ladlefuls of the sheep pluck stock to moisten and plunged our hands deep into the pot to mix, the haggis was smelling remarkably good and ready to be cooked.
Except, unfortunately, due to a stolen sheep stomach incident at Selfridge’s as well as a mail-order mishap with a backup ox bung (the attractively named last yard of a cow’s large intestine) we had nothing to stuff our haggis into.
Forced to experiment, we came up with a bunch of alternate showcases for our haggis:
1. Steamed in the oven by surrounding scoops in a layer of plastic wrap and then aluminum foil.
2. Oven roasted
4. Formed into balls, dipped into batter, and deep fried. Having just acquired a deep fat fryer for Rambling Restaurant, you can expect to see a lot of deep fried items making an appearance on this blog. Right up until my first heart attack.
5. Finally, after playing around a bit in a game of What Tastes Good Deep Fried? (Answer: EVERYTHING!) the ultimate haggis preparation came to us in a simultaneous bizarre great-minds-think-alike moment.
I present to you – Haggis. Stuffed into an English muffin. And deep fried.
It’s a Boston creme donut gone wrong or maybe so right – a rich, warm, meaty inside surrounded by a crunchy, oily, golden exterior. It was shockingly, decadently delicious, but I couldn’t eat more than two bites without feeling my arteries harden in protest.
The verdict of the haggis cooking comparison? Steamed was unanimously voted the best, as it allowed the oatmeal to cook, soften, and become infused with the intense meaty flavors of the offal. The roasted was okay, the pan-fried was too dry and crunchy with bits of oatmeal, and the deep-fried options were delicious but way too over the top for a meal ending with deep fried Mars bars. Instructions for that coming up soon…
All in all, haggis making was an entertaining, educational, at times both delicious and disgusting experience. Along with the traditional accompaniments of neeps (mashed swede, or rutabaga), tatties (potatoes) and cranachan (a Scottish dessert of whipped cream, honey, whiskey, raspberries and toasted oatmeal), my understanding of Scottish culinary brilliance has increased by leaps and bounds over the past few weeks. Add in a real Scot reading Burns’ Address To A Haggis followed by a stabbing…and the haggis experience is complete.