Recipe Sketchbook: The Dreaded Haggis!

100206-food-haggis-9-aHere is the situation…  The boss went to school in Scotland.  Therefore she, being then still impressionable and un-worldly, developed a fondness for Scottish food (bless her heart).  Now… the Scots have never been especially known for their culinary prowess.  When the Scots and the Gauls parted evolutionary ways one group took their swords and beat them into whisks.  And with those whisks they then beat eggs into a sabayon.  The other group took their swords and beat them into… more swords.  Which they then used to slice open sheep and turn it’s stomach into a musical instrument.  You can probably guess who did what.

Well, there were a lot of sheep.  And only so much musical ability (or listening appreciation) among them.  So the Scots had to come up with something to do with all the extra sheep stomachs.  Evidently someone had the bright idea of chopping up all the other sheep guts, shoving them into the sheep stomach and boiling it for a long time.  And, lo, the Scottish dish of haggis was born.  Of course don’t quote me on my recollection of history but I think that’s how it all went down.  Anyway, haggis is now seen as something of a national treasure really.
Haggis is traditionally eaten every year on or around January 25th, the day Scots celebrate the life of Robert Burns.  Robert Burns was an 18th century poet.  And it turns out that he wrote a poem about, of all things, haggis.  I am not sure, come to think of it, which came first – an annual celebration of haggis which somebody thought needed a few words written about… or a day commemorating Robert Burns which someone thought would be good to serve haggis on since for goodness sakes he wrote a poem about it.  Either way, Scots get together every year, read Robert Burns poetry, eat haggis, traditionally served with ‘neeps (turnips (swede)) and  tatties (potatoes) and drink lots of Scotch.

So because of the bosses’ affection for all things Scottish (if it’s not Scottish it’s crap!), we have been to several ‘Burns Night’ dinners.  And I must say, after having eaten it both here and in the UK,… I really like the stuff.  But I have never made it myself.  Always under the impression that finding a sheep stomach in the U.S. was difficult.  Well… no longer!  After some enquiring of the guys at Esposito’s, I have managed to procure all of the ‘parts’ needed to make haggis.  So last weekend I gave it a try and invited a bunch of people over for dinner.  One of them a Scot!  If I was going to do this I might as well set the bar high on the first try, right?

After researching several recipes for haggis, all of them slightly different in one way or other, I decided to use Delia Smith’s recipe for ‘The Dreaded Haggis’ found in her ‘Complete Cookery Course’ book as a starting point.  In the meat category, Delia’s recipe calls for one sheep stomach, one sheep heart, one sheep liver and 1/2 lb. of kidney leaf suet.  To that she adds 3/4 cup of oatmeal, 1tsp salt, 1/2tsp pepper, 1/4tsp cayenne, 1/2tsp nutmeg and 3/4c of stock.  Pretty simple really.

100206-food-haggis-6-aFor my haggis  I got the required sheep’s stomach.  Now, as an aside, let me address those that say using a plastic boiling bag or some such contraption in place of the stomach is fine and does not affect the taste.  To them I say, “booo.”  Sure a sheep’s stomach in it’s raw state may not smell very nice, but I am certain that it imparts a ‘je ne sais quois’ dimension to the haggis that is missing in its’ ‘Americanized’ interpretation.  Is it that you are squeamish about touching it?  C’mon, it’s not going to bite you.  In fact, it’s kind of stretchy and jiggly which can be kind of fun to play with, like the green slime that you begged your mom to buy for you while standing in the check-out aisle at K-mart when you were a kid.  But, really, the main reason that a sheep stomach should be used is for fidelity to the traditional recipe.  Simply put, this is how haggis has been made for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.  I think to truly understand the essence of a recipe you should try to prepare it the way it was originally done.  At least once.  And then, once you get the idea behind why it was done that way, feel free to adjust, update or edit it as you see fit on subsequent preparations.  Besides, have we as a society gotten so whimpy that we get grossed out at the thought of touching an internal organ or two?  I bet most of the inhabitants of history would laugh at our hesitance.  Anyway… I’m for stomachs.  ‘Nuff said. 

But back to the ingredients.  Delia’s recipe calls for a lamb heart and a lamb liver.  As pictured, I got both.  Although I will admit that when the butcher showed me the lamb liver I thought it would be too much and only got half of a liver.  A decision I would later regret.  But before I get to that I would like to mention lungs.  Some of the more ‘traditional’ recipes call for lamb lungs to be included.  And some do not.  But this is secondary to the fact that you can’t buy sheep lungs in the United States.  Why?  My Scottish friend thought it had something to do with the sheep disease ‘Scrapie’ and how it related to Mad Cow disease.  Looking into it a little further all I could find was that the US FDA had deemed lung ‘unfit for human consumption’ and speculation that the ban had something to do with tuberculosis fears in the 1930’s.  Now, I know I just went on and on about the stomach and how important understanding tradition is.  And, although I am no food historian, I am willing to bet that lungs were included in the old original recipes (peasants not wanting to waste anything).  But…, as I am not a very big fan of the chew consistency of lung, and I am not about to advocate breaking the law for some chopped guts, I am willing to overlook the inclusion of lungs.

Back again to the ingredients and the 1/2 lb (227g) of beef suet.  Having worked with suet while at St. John, I know that it is great.  But it is also fat with a capital ‘F’.  Wanting to try to tame the fat content while still retaining flavor I decided to use a little of the fat I had trimmed off of some short ribs and about 3 oz. (85g) of diced bacon fat.

100206-food-haggis-5-aThe next step was where I might have made a mistake.  Most recipes, Delia’s included, say to boil the heart and liver.  I thought, ‘boil?’ – ‘blah!’  Wouldn’t it be better to get a little char on the meat to add flavor?  So I briefly sauteed the minced heart and liver in the bacon and beef fat to give it some color.  It looked promising.

Another very important ingredient was the oats.  Which brought up a big question mark.  First, Delia’s recipe calls for 3/4 c (~80g) of oatmeal.  Alton Brown’s recipe calls for 1/2 pound (227g) ’dry oats, toasted’.  Big difference there in not only the type but also the amount.  Other recipes I found said to use only Scottish steel cut oats.  That sounded reasonable being Scottish and all.  So taking Alton’s advice I toasted the steel cut oats.  But how much?  I wanted to find that perfect balance of oats to meat but had nothing to go on other than a visual assessment.  The problem being the variable of how much the oats would swell when cooked.  So, adding a little at a time, I decided to go with 215g (1 1/4c) of the toasted steel cut oats.  A little more than Delia but less than Alton.  The ratio looked good.  I only hoped it would maintain during cooking.

Delia’s recipe says nothing about onion.  But other recipes do.  Being a lover of all things Allium I added 2 cups (235g) of minced onion to the meat and oat mix.  For the spices Delia calls for salt, pepper, cayenne and nutmeg.  Some recipes include coriander, ginger and mace.  Learning that mace is a sister to nutmeg, I gave it a pass.  I decided on 1 tsp (~2g) of salt, 1/2 tsp (~1g) of pepper, 1 tsp (1g) nutmeg, 1 tsp (1g) ground coriander and 1/2 tsp (.5g) ground ginger.

100206-food-haggis-7-aThe last thing was the stock.  Delia’s recipe calls for 3/4 cup (~190g) of stock.  What kind of stock?  Also interesting is that Alton’s doesn’t mention stock at all.  So, wanting any flavor bits I could get my hands on, and feeling Delia’s wasn’t enough, I added 1 cup (230g) of beef stock to the mixing bowl to get it all moist and clingy.  I then spooned it into the stitched up stomach and tied it shut.  If you are admiring the stitching technique do not be too impressed.  I learned it while stuffing hundreds of suckling pigs at St. John.  There is nothing to it.  Just pinch the two pieces together, jamb the needle through both, pull the string through, move forward a little bit and go back to the side you started on and jamb through again.  Repeat.  Easy. 

100206-food-haggis-8-aMost all recipes then say to boil the tied stomach (after poking a couple holes into it to avert explosions) for three hours.  I did just this.  And arrived at the product you see pictured at the top of the article.  This is the point at which the haggis should be carried into the dining room behind a guy playing bagpipes.  Then a kilted gentleman reads Robert Burns ‘Address To A Haggis’ to the diners, stabbing it with a knife at the appropriate line.  Everyone then eats haggis served with ‘neeps and tatties.  And Scotch.  For our situation we did not have any bagpipes.  Or anyone that could play them.  So we skipped that part and I just whined a little.  Our Scottish friend humored us and read the Burns poem just through the third verse so that we could cut it open and eat.

100206-food-haggis-10-aIn terms of taste, everyone thought it was great.  Even the Scot.  But I was not as thrilled as I had hoped to be.  First, I think browning the meat initially was a mistake.  It might have made it toughen up and clump together.  A state of affairs that was not dissolved in the boiling process.  The other issue was the meat-to-oats ratio.  As you can see in the photo, the oats are very prominent in the mix.  A relationship in which I think the meat should be the star.  An opinion reinforced by the haggis I have eaten in the past.  As alluded to earlier, I think I should have included the whole lamb liver into the mix instead of just half.  Not to mention the absence of minced lung left the dish with more of a meat deficit.  How to solve it?  I found an ‘Americanized’ recipe that called for ground lamb meat in place of the organs.  The horror!  I would not do that but maybe some minced lamb shoulder in addition to the whole liver might have helped.  Regardless of the meat combination I would definitely reduce the oats to only 1 cup (195g?).  The only other comments the Scot had were that the hagis could have used a bit more pepper and salt.  Duly noted.

Beyond that the only other major issue I would address is the boiling.  Now I know that this seems to be a tried-and-true part of every haggis recipe… but I am wondering if it might be too harsh of a cooking method to coax the most flavor out of the meat as possible.  I think the hot water may just pull flavor out of the mix.  Also, it didn’t do anything to soften or separate my browned bits of lamb heart and liver.  Maybe next time I will just mix the diced meat with the other ingredients, stuff it into a well-poked sheep stomach to let the moisture in, put it into a pot along with enough veal stock to almost cover it and then let it braise in a 275F (135C) oven for four or five hours.  Whatever it takes to get the meat tender, the flavors mingled and the oats nice and soft. 

To recap, here is my haggis recipe:
The Dread Haggis
1 sheep stomach
1 lamb heart, minced
1 lamb liver, minced
80g beef fat, minced
100g  bacon fat, minced
2c (235g) diced onion
1 c (195g) steel cut oats, toasted
1 ½ tsp (2.25g) salt
1 tsp (2g) ground pepper
1 tsp (1g) ground nutmeg
1 tsp (1g) ground coriander
½ tsp (.5g) ground ginger
1 c (230g) beef stock

That should do it.  A great traditional Scottish dish with roots that stretch back possibly to Roman times.  I look forward to trying it again soon.

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