So what do they eat in Scotland besides haggis and deep fried Mars Bars? There are oats, which Samuel Johnson defined as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”, completely setting himself up for Lord Elibank’s rejoinder: “Yes, and where else will you see such horses and such men?” And we cannot neglect whisky, regarded as food by some. In order to find out what else is on the Scottish table, I dug out two Scottish cookbooks from my basement archives: Nick Nairn’s Island Harvest and A Cook’s Tour of Scotland: From Barra to Brora in 120 Recipes by Sue Lawrence. Although Scotland does not exactly have a long growing season and the cuisine is very meat-centric, we had some very good, and even, perhaps, somewhat authentic food.
Nick Nairn, celebrity chef hereafter, grew up on Scottish food, was a Merchant Navy officer, and, on his return to land, learned that he could cook. Self-taught though he was, Nairn was the youngest Scottish chef to win a Michelin star. The book Island Harvest is based on a television series from 1997 of the same name. One of the more notable episodes from the series was the North Uist segment, in which Ena MacNeill shows Nick how to make black pudding; on seeing the sloshing bucket full of blood, Nick makes a quick exit in order to throw up, off camera. So it is not clear how much of the food Nick knew as a child came from grocery shelves, and how much was made in traditional ways. Many of the recipes in the book purport to be traditional recipes, others use traditional ingredients along with some less traditional ingredients, and other recipes seem to have nothing to do with Scotland at all, other than being recipes that Nick Nairn likes. The four recipes that I tried were most satisfactory, although I have quibbles about the recipe directions.
The recipe “Scottish Oatcakes with Goat Cheese, Cherry Tomatoes, and Basil” (page 60) fulfilled two purposes: I felt obligated to cook something with oats, and I was not finding much else in the way of salad in either Island Harvest or in Sue Lawrence’s book. The oat cakes are traditional, although here they are cooked in the oven instead of on a griddle. The recipe called for medium oatmeal; I was not sure what that meant. I used rolled oats, since that was what I had, but whizzed the oats in the food processor a few times. The oatcakes were not very exciting, but with the goat cheese, tomatoes, and basil (surely not traditional accompaniments) made a slightly interesting grain salad.
For soup, I made an adaptation of “Cullen Skink” (page 28). We are told in the introduction to this recipe that it is “vital to use top-quality, undyed smoked haddock” such as Arbroath smokies. Since Whole Foods Market in Ann Arbor does not sell Arbroath smokies, I used smoked trout. The soup consists of a mashed potato thinned with the cooking water, an onion cooked in butter, the smoked trout (or haddock), flaked, with milk and cream, and decorated with chives. This was hot and tasty, presumably nourishing, but not too subtle.
“Spicy Salmon with a Chilled Cucumber Salad” (page 73) was some of the best salmon that I have ever cooked, but I do not know whether to credit the recipe or the actual salmon that I happened to buy. This recipe is for blackened salmon; maybe there are a few lost Cajuns on the Shetland Islands who prepare their fish this way. The cucumber salad is a nice addition, but (I think) comes only from Nick Nairn’s culinary sense. I learned something from this recipe: I used to like my salmon fillets with the skin removed before I started to cook them, but now I see the point of leaving the skin on. Not only does it keep the salmon together, but adds to the flavor. [Go to the recipe.]
How could anyone resist a recipe with the redundant title “Little Scottish Butterscotch Pots” (page 146)? And this is definitely not a recipe to be resisted, as it is so good. You start with a can of sweetened condensed milk, and caramelize it by covering it with water and simmering, keeping the can covered with water lest it explode. I explored this whole process in Milk Moustache. Nick says simmer the can for three hours. I used the dulce de leche that I had prepared by pouring a can of sweetened condensed milk into a glass pan, covering it, and cooking in a 400º oven for an hour. This was left over from my experiments several weeks ago. Combine this dulce de leche (I don’t know what they call it in Scotland) with six egg yolks and one and a half cups of cream, and pour into six ramekins. Nick now says to bake in a water bath in a preheated 300° oven for 20-25 minutes, which is a problem: this is not enough time or a hot enough oven to cook the custards. Since you are supposed to remove them from the oven while still wobbly in the center, I did this, but the custards did not firm up as they cooled. I ended up putting them back in the oven, now at somewhere between 325º and 350º, and used my instant read thermometer to test the interior temperature of the custards. I ended up cooking them a little too long, since I erroneously thought that eggs should be cooked to 180º; the correct temperature is 150º. So my modified cooking instructions now are: cook in a water bath in a preheated 325º oven until the interior temperature of the custards is 145º. However, even though my custards were a little overcooked, they were incredible. Nick says to serve with a thin layer of cream on top; this is not a step to skip. He also serves them with shortbread cookies, which he insists on calling Viennese shortbread; what is wrong with Scottish shortbread? I followed his shortbread recipe rather sloppily, as I used homemade cultured butter that had not been adequately rinsed and drained. But like the imperfectly cooked custard, the imperfectly prepared cookies, although a bit too fragile, had an excellent taste.
Sue Lawrence is a wonderful food writer, not as well known in this country as she should be. Her book, A Cook’s Tour of Scotland: From Barra to Brora in 120 Recipes is everything that a cookbook focussing on a particular cuisine should be. Sue is the right person to write a book such as this: of her encounter with black pudding, made the traditional way (with fresh, not dried, blood) she says: “I survived my experience without even flinching at all that blood, although I will never look at raspberry jam in quite the same way again.” The book has many stories of the people making traditional Scottish food, and is filled with photographs not only of food but from Sue’s own family album, with pictures from the early twentieth century and on. The recipes are accessible, although from my own point of view, there are too many for meat or trayf seafood (but this is a book of Scottish food, not Jewish vegetarian food). For the most part, Sue sticks with traditional recipes, but will put her own spin on them. She is not exactly writing for the impoverished crofter on a rocky isle. A few recipes showcase traditional foods in novel presentations; I am particularly fascinated by her haggis lasagne.
“Oven-Cooked Barley with Mushrooms and Parsley” (page 175) can best be described as a solid mushroom barley soup. Usually my mushroom barley soups end up solid the next day anyway, as the barley keeps absorbing the liquid, so it makes sense to me just to start out at this point. The parsley and Parmesan cheese added at the end are most likely Sue’s own touch and not the usual Scottish treatment.
“Rumbledethumps” (page 134) is a dish from the Borders: in its most primitive avatar, it consists of mashed potatoes with cabbage. Sue also mashes a turnip with the potato, and uses kale instead of cabbage, neither variation too far from the basic dish. Then, however, she tops her dish with a good farmhouse cheddar, which, although an excellent idea, is probably not what her ancestors did.
I would have loved to have tried many more of Sue Lawrence’s baking recipes, but there is a limited amount of baked goods that Danny and I alone can eat or even give away. Thus the one recipe I tried was “Buttery Butteries” (page 206), which might have been the best possible choice. These rolls (also known as rowies) are traditionally made with lard or beef drippings; Sue’s innovation is to put the butter into butteries. This is a yeast dough, very similar to a croissant dough, except the butter (or other fat) is layered in one session, not with repeated refrigerations and rollings. Sue’s other innovation, which I have not seen in other recipes for butteries, is to top the rolls with some coarse salt. I used Celtic sea salt, which, as can be seen in the picture, turned black on being cooked. I quite enjoyed my butteries. In fact, given the unholy trinity of sugar, fat, and salt, I could probably do without sugar as long as I had an ample supply of butteries with all their fat and salt. [Go to the recipe.]
The title of this post is from Robert Burns, “Address to a Haggis“, and any discussion of Scottish food must at some point get around to haggis. My first awareness of haggis, at least haggis in literature, came from the disreputable Rat in John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk . I will quote Rat’s song, less googleable than Burns’s “Address”:
What though the wise eat mutton pies,
Or pasties made of staggy,
To all the wise I makes replies,
Give me my pretty Naggy.
Oh let my jaw lay down and gnaw
Until my teeth are jaggy,
Both cooked and raw the Scots whae ha
My ain braw sonsie Naggy.
Haggis is a pudding made of sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs, mixed with spices and oats (sometimes barley) and cooked in the sheep’s stomach. It is a huge production to make haggis; even if I cooked meat, I would never try to make any. Haggis does not appear in Nick Nairn’s book; Sue Lawrence has a chapter on haggis, but only recipes for using the already prepared haggis. There may exist kosher haggis, but I doubt that I will ever come across any. Thus the only way I will ever have any sort of haggis experience will be with vegetarian haggis.
I once bought a can of vegetarian haggis. It sat on my shelf for months, as I was a bit scared to open it. Eventually, Shay took the can to Montreal, where it sat on a shelf for a few more months. Finally, at a party that Shay and his roommates were having, someone was brave enough to open the can. The general opinion was that it looked like dog food, smelled like dog food, and tasted like dog food.
Hoping for something better than the dog food experience, I searched the internet and found a promising Guardian recipe. I have no idea how much the result resembled real haggis, but it tasted really good! We ate it with the rumbledethumps, as neeps and tatties are the proper companions to haggis, and even broke out the Laphroaig. The only problem was that we were not having this meal on January 25.
Blackened Salmon with Cucumbers
Adapted from Nick Nairn, Island Harvest
1 pound salmon fillets
2 teaspoons paprika
½ teaspoon Aleppo pepper
¼ teaspoon dried thyme
¼ teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon pepper
¼ teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon salt
½ English cucumber, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
Juice of 1 lime
½ hot red pepper, minced
Cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
Rinse the salmon and pick out any remaining bones. Score the skin. Mix together all the spices and seasonings (paprika through salt). Rub onto both sides of the salmon.
Heat a little olive oil in a cast iron skillet. Cook the salmon, skin side done, over medium heat for several minutes, until the skin is crispy. Brush the top of the salmon with olive oil, then turn the salmon and cook until done, several more minutes. I will usually cut into the salmon to see if it is cooked to my satisfaction.
Mix all the cucumber salad ingredients together, using as much cilantro as you like (possibly none, if you dislike cilantro), and adding salt to taste.
Serve the salmon with the cucumbers on top, underneath, or to the side.
Adapted from Sue Lawrence, A Cook’s Tour of Scotland
2-2¼ cups bread flour
1½ teaspoons instant yeast (e.g., SAF instant yeast)
½ teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
¾ cup water
7 tablespoons butter, cold
Coarse sea salt
Mix together the flour, yeast, sugar, and salt. Add the water and knead for 5 to 7 minutes. You will probably need to adjust the flour or water. I do this in the heavy duty electric mixer. When the dough is smooth and elastic, cover, and let it rise until doubled.
Pat out the dough into a rectangle. Using very thin slices of butter, sliced with either a sharp knife or a vegetable peeler, place one sixth of the butter on the middle half of the dough. Fold one end over, and place another sixth of the butter on that end, then fold the remaining end over. You will end up with a dough packet composed of three dough layers and two butter layers. Press this packet into another rectangle, and repeat the procedure. Repeat yet again, at which point all the butter will be used up. If at any point the dough becomes too springy, just let it rest for about ten minutes. Now press or roll the dough into a 6 inch square. Press the coarse sea salt onto the top of the dough. Cut into 16 small squares. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, and place the rolls on the baking sheet, with space between them. Cover, and let the rolls rise for 30 to 45 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 450º. Bake the butteries for about 20 minutes. These are best when fresh, but if you are not eating them all immediately, let them cool on a wire rack.