Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Iron Chef: Haggis Challenge

Rumor has it that the most popular question on the President’s CitizenTube talking point list enquires as to the future of that most cherished of stoner dreams: the legalization of marijuana. Personally, I’m impatient with such trivial matters. A far graver US ban haunts my days and nights: the longstanding haggis blockade.

In case you missed it, Burns Night (anniversary of the birth of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns) was celebrated last week on the evening of January 25th. Beyond an excuse for bagpipes, excessive whiskey toasts, and a dusting off of the old tartan, Burns Night has the unique honor of being the only holiday in which organ meats feature prominently on the menu. Burn’s mock epic, “Ode to a Haggis,” has attached itself so securely to the day, that one cannot mention Burns Night without uttering “haggis” in the same breath. To celebrate Burns Night without that “Great Cheiftan o’ the Puddin’ Race” would be tantamount to Valentines Day without conversation hearts—sure, most people don’t really like to eat the chalky candies, but they’re such handy conversation starters, right?

And a haggis, allow me to add, is much, much more than a conversation starter. The recipe varies depending on whom you ask, but usually involves some combination of sheep heart, liver, tongue, kidneys, and lungs, all of which are combined with steel-cut oats, spices, and a generous portion of fat, then boiled like a pudding within a sheep’s stomach. Small wonder that the colloquial description claims that haggis contains “everything but the baaaa”. Traditional haggis was peasant food, and so not an exacting science; it utilized whatever was left once the “good parts” had been consumed. All manner of variation exists in present-day Scotland, from “beef haggis” to “vegetarian haggis” to “haggis burgers” (I don’t know that I want to know). Still, the ideal was and always shall be the spectacle of a haggis on a platter, sliced open like a sausage and steaming before the guests.

As you probably guessed, I really wanted to eat a haggis this year. Despite rumors to the contrary, the USDA had no plans of lifting their decades long ban on haggis imports (begun during the days of foot-and-mouth fears), so I took it upon myself to make one from scratch.

Farmer friends informed me that they would be sending a sheep to slaughter in January, and I quickly requested that they reserve all offal for me. Unfortunately, the watchful eyes of the USDA decreed that the stomach was unfit for stuffing and that lungs are not for eating, and I was only able to acquire the conventionally edible parts (heart, liver, kidneys, tongue). The lovely thing about organ meats is their relative economy, even when sourced from an otherwise expensive retailer. Purchasing enough lamb or mutton to host a dinner party would have placed quite a strain on my careful winter budget, but haggis supplies from a local farm whose grass-fed sheep had been slaughtered at a USDA facility (this adds quite a bit of cost for the farmer) set me back only $10.

Home, and having sufficiently exhausted the comedic photo potential of the tongue, I began my haggis. First, I boiled the offal for about three hours, ostensibly to render it more tender (though in truth it could only ever be described as chewy). Once cooked and cooled, I minced all of the organs and mixed them with toasted oats, spices, onion, broth, and some tallow. The mixture looked a bit like chunky sausage filling, and smelled surprisingly appealing, I thought. Lacking a (sheep) stomach, I had to take some culinary liberties, and I cooked the haggis double-boiler style, with tin-foil tightly covering the top of the haggis-bowl.

Our guests arrived. The whiskey poured. We heaped the table high with other vaguely Scottish delights in hopes that a failure of the haggis would not spoil the entire evening. And with great fanfare, we all dug in.

I’m not kidding, it was good. As in, people took seconds good. Andrew ate thirds, though that wasn’t terribly surprising, really. The surprise was universal, as almost everyone, it turned out, had partaken under the assumption that this would be a meal for bragging rights, rather than gastronomical enjoyment. I won’t tell you that the haggis was pretty, as it was not. And it did have liver-y overtones (you can never hide a liver, no matter how hard you try). But I can easily see why Scotland has adopted haggis as their national dish: a culinary emblem of resourcefulness, an ode to cereal and sheep.

Besides, haggis is way, WAY better than the South London standby of jellied eels.

DIY Haggis

1 sheep heart
2 sheep kidneys
1 sheep liver
1 sheep tongue
1/2 lb suet (lacking proper suet, I used a combination of tallow and lard)
1 cup toasted steel cut oats
2 onions, chopped
~1 cup beef broth, or cooking liquid from the offal
1/4 t ground allspice
1/4 t ground nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
1 sheep stomach (optional)

First and foremost, be sure to source your offal from a farmer or butcher you know and trust. Consider that the liver is the of the body--do you really want the liver of an animal that was suckled on preventative antibiotics?

Cook the organs (NOT the stomach) in a pot of boiling water for 3 hours, approximately. They should be cooked through. Drain and reserve the cooking liquid, if you want. Once cool enough to handle, peel the tongue (yes, it will be disturbingly tongue-like), cut out the gristly center of the kidneys, and mince everything as finely as you can. This is the most labor intensive part of the process, by far.

Grate or chop the suet finely. (N.B: real suet is the fat that surrounds the kidneys of a cow. It melts, I am told, at a higher temperature than other beef fats, making it desirable in puddings for texture. Suet is not a hugely popular item in this country, so if you, like me, have trouble locating it, just use the closest thing in your larder.) Mix the suet, onions, spices, and oatmeal with the minced organ meat and moisten it all with the stock. Stuff the stomach. Stitch the stomach tightly shut, and prick it a few times to allow pressure to escape during cooking. Boil the stomach gently for about 3 hours. If you are thwarted in your quest for a stomach, I recommend the double boiler method, and I have heard rumors that it is even possible to cook a haggis in a crockpot (maybe next year). Place the haggis in your double boiler, cover the top tightly with a lid or tinfoil and a rubber band, and boil the haggis in your double boiler for 3 hours. Then serve and enjoy! Haggis is traditionally accompanied by mashed "neeps and tatties" (potatoes and turnips) and a generous dram of whiskey.

1 comment:

Alexandra said...

Oh, man! I kind of wish I'd been there to try it, but I still don't know if I could stomach it, pardon the sort-of pun. Great read though!