Planning a Robbie Burns dinner? Here's everything you'll need to fete the bard, from recipes for vegetarian haggis and neeps, oat cakes with smoked salmon, and boozy bread pudding, to tips to set the scene and choosing a dram!
By CINDA CHAVICH
If you’re having trouble seeing the sexy side of another Burns Night, consider this.
The annual mid-winter dinner — celebrating a dead Scottish poet and his ode to a classic sausage in a sheep’s stomach — is actually rather ‘of the moment’, especially when you have your local artisan butcher create the classic haggis with the best local lamb, turning its precious offal into a zero-waste feast (not to mention a few Outlander-esque men in kilts to set the scene).
Serve this Scottish national dish alongside a fluffy pile of tatties and neeps (mashed potato and rutabagas), with cold smoked BC salmon and oat cakes to start, a flight of fine single malts or a series of local Twa Dogs craft beer, each named for a classic Burns verse, and it makes for a stylish, island-style celebration.
Robert Burns was born on January 25, 1759 and died a short 37 years later, making him a romantic figure who has been celebrated ever since. Known as “the people’s poet”, Burns was born into poverty and led a rather wild and dramatic life, his writing often pointing out social injustices with biting satire and wit.
You might need a Celtic dictionary to read Burns’ tale The Twa Dogs (Luath and Caesar, a common collie and perhaps a Newfoundland, in conversation about life, society and class) but the story makes a good conversation starter, especially while sipping a beer by the same name from Victoria Caledonian Brewery & Distillery. With their own single malts aging in the barrel, a couple of stunning copper stills imported from Speyside, and a whisky tasting room, it’s a great place to get the Burns’ mood flowing.
Or simply head to The Whole Beast (next to The Village Butcher in Oak Bay) where Cory Pelan regularly turns the lungs, hearts and other offal leftover after breaking down lamb from Metchosin’s Parry Bay Sheep Farm, into a very high quality and tasty haggis.
ALL HAIL HAGGIS
I actually like haggis, not only because it channels my late Scottish grandmother, but also because it’s become a symbol of Scottish cuisine for local chefs embracing their traditional roots. On a recent tour of Edinburgh and environs, I ate haggis for breakfast with eggs, tried haggis samosas, mini haggis “bonbons”, haggis in puff pastry, and even tasty vegetarian haggis. My haggis came in crisp, fried patties, crumbled over mash, and stacked in a tower, bathed in whisky and leek sauce.
There’s a popular line of ready to heat-and-eat haggis in Scottish supermarkets from MacSween, a company that makes traditional haggis, beef and haggis burgers, wild boar haggis, even a haggis with grouse, pheasant and duck. They also sell “one minute haggis”, sliced in a plastic packet to microwave for lunch.
Though much maligned, haggis is simply a sausage, made as many traditional sausages are, to use up the remains after an animal is butchered for meat. It all depends who’s making the haggis and what kind of ingredients they use, but good haggis is like any other artisan charcuterie. At The Whole Beast, Pelan uses a classic haggis recipe, combining the pluck (lung, heart and liver) with lots of onions, toasted pinhead oats, beef suet and spices.
“We started with (chef) Fergus Henderson’s recipe and tweaked it a bit,” says Pelan who collects the lamb offal to make haggis when whole animals are butchered in house. “Sometimes we’ll grind up the kidneys or poach off the tongues and grind them. The heart is important for the meaty texture, the liver adds a nice rich flavour and the lung insures the mixture doesn’t get too dense.”
It’s all stuffed into a beef bung (natural casing) then poached before freezing.
“It’s fully cooked but it still needs to be cooked a lot more before your serve it,” explains Pelan. “We vacuum pack the haggis so you can poach it sous vide (in 70˚C water) for 2-3 hours to finish it.”
You can also steam haggis or wrap in foil and bake.
When cooked the texture is crumbly but soft, the oats and ground meat somewhat like a shepherd’s pie filling. It’s scooped out of the casing to serve and should arrive piping hot, with onion gravy, turnips and potatoes.
While a whisky toast it traditional, you won’t need hard liquor to disguise the flavour of a well-made haggis. You might just end up yearning for the next Robbie Burns dinner and a chance to indulge in this seasonal treat.
“Now I get it,” says Pelan who supplies haggis to annual events like the Robbie Burns celebrations at Craigdarroch Castle. “It’s super rich but it’s super delicious – it’s just perfect the way it is.”
BURNS SUPPER 101
Oatcakes with smoked salmon
Cock-a-leekie (chicken and leek) or Scotch broth soup
The Haggis (of course)
Vegetarian Haggis (for the Not-Brave-Hearts)
Tatties and Neeps (a mash of rutabagas and potatoes)
Bread pudding with whisky sauce or Tipsy Laird (a creamy whisky-laced trifle)
A wee dram (or three) of your finest single malt is de rigeur to toast the bard. Ask your friends to each bring a bottle of their favourite Scotch for a bit of a tasting (tell them they can take home the remains, as good whisky is pricey).
You might also consider pouring the new line of Twa Dogs craft beers from Victoria Caledonian Brewery & Distillery – Drouthy Neibor IPA, Mistress of my Soul Saison, Keekin’ Glass Pilsner, Holy Willie’s Porter and Jolly Beggar’s Pale Ale, all celebrate a Burns’ poem and you can read an excerpt next to the tasting notes on line.
Or search for the Scottish Cairn O' Mohr bramble and oak leaf wine, that "gangs wi haggis" (goes with haggis).
Crack out the plaid napkins and the kilts to set the scene (although the latter was banned from wearing in Burns’ time, he was a champion of the cultural rights of all Scots, kilt-wearing included).
A piper may be a bit much inside the house but a little bagpipe prelude (downloaded from the internet) makes a nice entrée to the main course and address To a Haggis. Then keep the party lively with some Celtic tunes from Cape Breton’s Natalie MacMaster or Toronto’s Enter the Haggis.
Look for someone in your dining party with an actor’s flourish or Scottish brogue to recite Burns’ poem, Address to a Haggis, or at least the simple Selkirk Grace (below), but first have your guests stand and clap slowly as the cook ferries the "great chieftan o the puddin’-race” to the table, held aloft on a silver tray.
Address the haggis, slash it open with a chef’s knife (or a dagger, if you have one), and serve with more whisky or Scottish ale, and a lashing of onion gravy. Slàinte!
If the address is too much to work through, just start with the short and sweet Selkirk Grace. Then dive in.
Some hae meat and canna eat
And some wad eat that want it
But we hae meat, and we can eat
Sae let the Lord be thankit
OAT CAKES WITH SMOKED SALMON
Slivers of smoked salmon, on a handmade oat cracker, with a dab of crème fraiche or sour cream and a sprig of dill, makes a hearty starter. If you need to save time, you can find imported oatcake crackers from companies like Walkers in local supermarkets.
8 oz. cold smoked salmon (lox)
½ cup sour cream or crème fraiche
1 tablespoon each, chopped fresh and chopped chives
dill sprigs or chives to garnish
3 cups quick-cooking oatmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup hot water
To make oat crackers, combine oatmeal, salt and baking soda in a bowl. Pour in the melted butter and then stir in enough water to make a stiff dough. You may have to wait a few minutes for the oats to absorb the water to check the consistency.
Turn dough onto a floured surface and quickly knead for 30 seconds.
Roll out on a sheet of plastic or wax paper to a 1/4-inch thickness, then cut out round crackers with a 3-inch cookie cutter or water glass.
Use a spatula to transfer crackers to a baking sheet that’s been lined with parchment paper, and bake at 350°F for 30 minutes or until they begin to brown. Cool on a rack and store in an airtight tin.
Combine the sour cream or crème fraiche with the chopped dill and chives. To serve, spoon a little cream on a cracker, top with a sliced smoked salmon and a sprig of dill or chive. Serves 8.
I created this recipe after tasting a vegetarian haggis in a restaurant in Edinburgh. Like the popular MacSween products found in supermarkets across Scotland, it’s a kind of vegetarian loaf made with chopped mushrooms, onions, carrots, red lentils, with chopped nuts and the requisite steel-cut (pinhead) oats for texture. For a nut-free version, use sunflower seeds.
The caramelized onion gravy I made to serve alongside was good on the veg haggis, and the traditional haggis, too.
1 tablespoon butter
2/3 cup steel cut oats
2/3 cup rolled oats
2/3 cup chopped nuts (mix of almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, or sunflower seeds)
Melt the butter in a large sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the oats and nuts and toast together for 5-10 minutes, stirring often, until starting to brown. Dump into a bowl and set aside.
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 medium carrots, shredded
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
8 mushrooms, chopped
650-750 ml vegetable stock or water, divided
1/3 cup red lentils
½ cup kidney or romano beans (canned/cooked), mashed
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon dried savoury
¼ teaspoon celery salt
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
In the sauté pan, heat the remaining butter and oil over medium heat. Saute the onion until softened and starting to colour. Add the carrots, garlic and mushrooms and sauté 5 minutes longer. Stir in the lentils and 1 cup (250 ml) of the stock or water. Bring to a boil.
Mix another cup (250 ml) of stock with the mashed beans and soy sauce, and add to the pan. Cover and simmer 10 minutes.
Stir in the toasted oats and nuts and seasonings, bring to a boil, then return the lid to the pan and simmer on low for 15 minutes, adding another !/2 cup (100-200 ml ) of broth or water as necessary. This mixture should be moist, but not soupy.
Stir in the lemon juice. Taste and adjust seasoning. It may need salt, depending on what kind of broth you’ve used.
Turn into a buttered loaf pan and bake at 375 F for 30 minutes.
Served with mashed potatoes and turnips. Serves 6.
3 large onions, peeled and slivered
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup white wine
2 tablespoons flour
3 cups water or broth
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon Worcestershire
salt and pepper
In a sauté pan, heat the butter and oil over medium low heat and cook the onions, stirring often, until brown and caramelized.
Add the garlic and cook for 5 minutes.
Deglaze the pan with wine, stirring up any browned bits, then stir in the flour and cook for 1 minute. Gradually add the water or broth and bring to a simmer. Cook 1-2 minutes then add the soy sauce, Worchester and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Cool slightly. Use a hand held blender (or food processor) to whiz up the sauce, leaving it a little chunky. Reheat and thin to preferred consistency with a splash of water or ale. Makes 4 cups.
BOOZY BREAD PUDDING WITH WHISKY SAUCE
More whisky? Why not — it’s the Celtic way and nothing lifts an old-fashioned bread pudding into gourmet territory like this creamy caramel-coloured whisky sauce. It’s a good trick to haul out anytime you need to take a dessert up a notch. A recipe from The Guy Can’t Cook by Cinda Chavich.
6 cups day-old white bread (brioche or challah makes a richer pudding but an Italian loaf or baguette works, too)
1 cup raisins
1/2 cup whisky
2 cups whole milk
1 cup whipping cream
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup melted butter
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
Caramel Whisky Sauce:
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup scotch (or rye) whisky
Preheat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC).
For the pudding, cut the bread into 3/4-inch cubes and place in a large bowl.
Combine the raisins and ½ cup of whisky in a bowl and microwave for 30 seconds. Set aside to cool and soak for 30 minutes.
In another bowl, use a whisk to combine the milk, cream, egg, sugar, butter, vanilla, and salt. Pour over the bread and stir to combine. Let the mixture rest for 10 minutes, to allow the bread to soak up the custard, before stirring in the raisins and whisky.
Pour the bread mixture into a buttered, 10-cup baking dish and bake for 1 hour or until puffed and golden.
While the pudding is baking, make the sauce. In a small saucepan, boil the sweetened condensed milk with the cream over medium heat until it turns a caramel colour: this will take about 15 minutes. Stir it regularly to make sure it doesn’t burn. Remove from the heat and slowly stir in the whisky. Keep warm until ready to use.
When the pudding is baked and firm, remove from oven and cool slightly. Cut into squares and serve warm, drizzled with whisky sauce.
Serves 8 to 10
SERVING SINGLE MALTS
I can’t say enough about the joys of discovering the many nuances of real malted whisky. Go to the source in Scotland if you get the chance and taste Scotch whisky as is should be tasted, along the river Spey.
Real Scotch whisky is only made in Scotland, so when you’re buying Scotch, just make sure you’re getting single malt and not a blended drink. Real Scotch is an artisan product, still made according to specific rules in Scotland. Those labeled single malts are made with nothing but malted barley (grain that has been sprouted then dried), yeast and water, and all in the same distillery. There are cheaper, blended Scotch whiskies on the market but they can be made almost anywhere, with any kind of bulk grain alcohol. It’s still whisky, but it’s nothing like the real single malt Scotch.
Try Scotch from several parts of Scotland to discover the vast array of regional and stylistic characters. There are sweet versions, peaty ones, and aromatic Scotches aged in recycled sherry and port casks. The distinct, smoky flavour you can taste in some Scotch comes from the peat fires used to dry the malt in certain parts of the country. The briny character in others is because it’s been aged in the salty seaside air. The water, the wood, the age of the whisky, and the shape of the pot it was distilled in, all affect the style and flavour of single malt.
Lowland malts are generally “softer” or smoother than Highland malts. Within the Highlands, Speyside malts are considered the most refined. Campbeltown, in the south and surrounded by the sea, is known for its briny malts, while Islay, an island nearby, makes big peaty and complex malts with hints of seaweed and iodine.
Keep a selection of malts on hand for guests, whether you're serving whisky to begin or end a meal.
Drink it as they do in Scotland: straight up with perhaps a wee splash of water. A Scot would never have a dram on ice, but you might like that, too.
CANADA'S WHISKY FESTIVAL IN VICTORIA
The annual Victoria Whisky Festival goes every January in the BC capital, with a variety of dinners, tastings and master classes, drawing international whisky experts, connoisseurs and novices alike for a dive deep into the water of life.