Monday 22 June 2020

Recipe ~ Scottish American Recession Haggis

As always, if you just want the recipe, without the story behind it, click here.

With National Tartan Day quickly fading in the rear view, largely uncelebrated this year, and the time upon us when many of us would, in normal times, be driving hither and yon every other week, attending the various Highland games in, near, and sometimes not so near to our local areas, my mind has been on the much celebrated and more maligned, "great chieftain o' the pudding-race".

It's not just the time of year that has brought to mind the noble haggis and a desire to create a recipe though. It's been, as with most things I set about doing, a process.

I LOVE those facial expressions. Link is horrified, and Rhett is just resigned to their fate.

About three months ago, Rhett and Link did a "tasting the limits of mac and cheese" episode. One of the featured foods was a mac and cheese haggis, which, I gotta say, was pretty interesting, and reminded me that I had wanted to try my hand at making haggis sometime in the near future (but not mac & cheese haggis!)

So, I started looking for recipes on the internet. I quickly discovered that getting the items needed for a "traditional" haggis in the USA was not really going to happen, so I did more digging, and managed to find a few recipes using stuff available here.  
I then discovered that what started out as a dish made by poor people from the bits most people throw away has become, as usual, something very expensive to make, at least on this side of the pond, and decided that idea would have to be shelved for the time being, cause even in normal times, no way could I afford to make haggis.

Fast forward a month, and, like many folks, the COVID19 pandemic and subsequent fallout has meant a significant reduction in my already sparse income, to the point that I have had to go back to relying on the local food bank for the first time in a good while. That means I end up with even more foods that aren't things I typically buy (I already get a fair few surprises in my Imperfect boxes, especially during CSA season!), so I've been doing a lot more impromptu recipe inventing again, based on whatever ends up in those boxes. 
Some of what comes from the food bank is specialty or just unusual items, which always provide an opportunity to get creative and learn what to do with this new (to me) thing, and often, what it even is. One of the things that was in a box recently was a pound of ground pork. Not pork sausage or anything - just straight up ground pork. I figured I'd use it in place of ground turkey to stretch the ground beef in my next meatloaf.

Another thing that is almost always in the food bank haul is oats. I still have well over half of the last 25 pound bag of steel cut oats that I bought before all the shutdowns, so now the oats are really piling up. 

Along with random, weird bits of meats. Hmmmm.....
The haggis idea wheels were spinning again, so back to the internet I went! This time, I was looking for substitution ideas and some deeper history of the dish.

It was then I learned that the "traditional" use of lamb was something that became a thing much, much later, as part of a more refined form than the humble beginnings of the haggis. 
Initially, historical research suggests, the dish was created as a way to use the organs of hunted animals before they spoiled. It was typically made from the offal of whatever game happened to be hunted or livestock slaughtered - the choice cuts going to the local chieftain or laird, poorer quality cuts to lesser, but still well off folks, and the offal going to the workers, as all or part of their pay.

In later times, including during the lifetime of Scotland's national poet, Robert Burns, whose Address to a Haggis led to its fame as Scotland's national dish, it was a common dish of the poor, as it made the most of the cheapest possible bits of meat and offal (usually from sheep, the most commonly available meat at the time), to round out the oats, which were a staple food, and featured in a majority of meals.

Most of the oldest surviving recipes have more oats and onions to meat than the more modern, "traditional" ones. That is probably because what started out as a way for very poor people to make less and poorer quality meat stretch farther, feed more mouths, and use every little bit, so as not to waste anything, has become more of a niche thing that costs a lot more and is marketed to people with money to spare, as a novelty or special occasion dish. That happens to most staple and poor people foods when rich people discover and like it, but if you're willing to go old school and make things from scratch, most of them go back to being very cheap. Not to mention a hell of a lot better tasting and healthier than overpriced, processed, pre-packaged crap!

Mine takes a middle of the road approach with the oats/onion/meat ratios, much like the "better times" version of my mom's "Pacific Northwest" Meatloaf (another good recession recipe, and hmmmm.. That just gave me another possibly good idea! Stay tuned!), and uses more oats to meat than most modern versions, but less than using just the offal and the rest oats and onion would use.

Traditional recipes also tend to call for a LOT of fat (suet/lard/shortening), but it isn't really necessary. Several modern recipes omit it fully, but I think that will affect the end result too much, so I have reduced it by around half, depending on who you ask. It makes it healthier and, IMO, better. If you really like fatty foods and/or want it to be closer to tradition, by all means, use more! I'm not stopping you.

One beef heart
The other side of the heart
meat and suet separated
 Speaking of suet,  that is one of the things that is practically impossible to find in the regular grocery stores in the USA. You can probably get it directly from an actual butcher, if you can find one anymore; you can buy it on Amazon for about $1.00/oz (that is $16.00/lb! For fat!), OR... you can do some extra work with what you already paid (a LOT less) for. When you buy the beef heart, if they offer to trim it for you, ask if they will save trimmed fat for you. If so, great! You don't even have to do the extra work! Otherwise, politely decline and do it yourself. That weird, hard fat that kind of looks brain-like? That is suet! One heart should have at least enough meat and suet for 2 good batches of this recipe. That is a LOT of haggis!

After studying dozens of informational websites, articles, Wikipedia references, and just over twenty recipes, from ancient to modern and everything in between, I had everything pretty much finalised in terms of what I wanted to go into it, and was ready to put it to the test!  

Here are all my ingredients and the casings, ready to start. 
When you think about it, it's not actually THAT many ingredients, considering the amount of food it makes. 

I only used about one lb each of the beef heart and ground beef. Just hadn't separated them out yet for this photo.

My version deliberately uses more organ meats than most modern recipes, because I wanted to take it back closer to its origins, both in cost and in taste. It does give it a bit more gamey flavour than what you'll find at a restaurant or fancy Burns Supper, but I love it that way! 
If you find that it is too strong for you, you can cut back on the heart and liver/other organs, but at least give it a shot first!

The casings need to soak for a little while. Really only 30 minutes, but I started them soaking early, cause I wasn't sure.
 My recipe calls for a total of four pounds of meat. Considering the amount of prep and time involved, I'd rather make a huge batch and freeze most of it for another time. Feel free to cut it down to size if you like. Do an internet search for a recipe converter and it will even do the maths for you.  

There's the heart and liver ready to go into the pot to simmer.
Cooked heart and liver
I watched it and it did so boil!
Toasty Oats

Ground meats, onion, and garlic cooking.
  With my initial testing of this recipe, I learned a few things.

One is that the food processor is quite possibly the best invention since coffee!  Seriously, I shudder at the thought of trying to undertake a task like this without one!

Minced Beef Heart

Grated Liver

Grated Suet

All that grinding, grating, chopping, and mincing would have taken forever without the food processor! 

Ground/minced fresh herbs in with the minced and shredded meats and suet.

Another is that everyone who had said, "use more spice than you think you need" really were right!

It looks like a ridiculous amount of spices for the amount of meat, but remember, all those oats are going to expand about 3 times their size before cooking.
 I used the max amount of cayenne and black pepper listed in my recipe below, but only half of the white pepper. Next time, I'll use more white pepper and maybe a little less cayenne. Maybe. The way I made it was a little too spicy for people who don't like spicy things, but not five alarm fire spicy. And that's what the whisky sauce, neeps, and tatties are for - to round out the heat a little. Still though, that's why I put, "to taste". 

It already tasted SOOO good!
Definitely sample bites of the mixture as you mix in your spices, so you can get it where you want it (try not to eat too much. It will be much better once all done, if you can wait!).

I also learned that instructions for natural casings are not necessarily good for synthetic ones. 
I started out using the method most use with beef bungs for making multiple, smaller, haggi (It's a word. See below); filling to where I wanted and then tying, tying again, and filling the next section. That just does not work well with the synthetic casings (I think because less stretch), so I changed it to what worked better.

A whole lotta haggis, ready for the final stage!

Next lesson: It turns out I could have stuffed the casings a lot more full than I did! I was paranoid because of all the dire warnings about exploding haggis from not piercing the casings and/or not leaving enough room in them for expansion of the oats. 
It turns out that, while they don't have nearly as much as natural casings, the synthetic ones do have a decent amount of stretch to them, and would have been more attractive and used less casing material, had I been a little less conservative. The instructions reflect that discovery, so your first haggis should turn out better than mine, if you follow them.


The biggest thing I learned is that this whole process can take a lot of time, so you may want to do most of the prep work one day, then actually do the final simmering of your haggis another day. 
That way, you'll be able to start the haggis simmering after lunch, and have time to make your neeps, tatties, and whisky cream sauce to serve with the main dish.
That is enough for 4 meals like the one in the next photo down.

Since the recipe makes so much, it's not at all painful to put together a care package or few for friends and family to enjoy, taste test, and maybe send you a great photo to share!

Enjoy your supper with a wee dram, or not so wee, if you like.
Photo by Bagpiper, Baker, Author, and Official Taste Tester, Don Scobie

Scottish American Recession Haggis


  • 2-3 4"x20" sausage casings (or beef bung/cap, if you must) 
  • Kitchen twine  
  • Meat grinder or food processor (optional, but SO MUCH easier)
  • Sausage stuffer (optional - you can also just spoon it in)
  • Sharp knife
  • Large stockpot (big enough to simmer your stuffed casings with room to spare)
  • Large skillet
  • Large mixing bowl or food safe tub
  • 1 lb liver (any kind, really. I prefer beef, for the stronger flavour)
  • 1 lb beef heart (and/or other organ/offal meats/trimmings)
  • 1 lb ground beef (or lamb, or sheep/mutton, or chicken/turkey, or...)
  • 1 lb ground or finely chopped pork (can also use lamb, beef, boar, venison, bison, elk, etc. If using leaner meats like bison/venison, use extra suet or lard)
  • 3 cups steel cut (AKA pinhead) oats (can use rolled oats, but will significantly change texture and to some degree, taste)
  • 3 large onions
  • 2+ cloves garlic (optional - not at all traditional, but YUM!)
  • 6-8 oz beef suet (or lard/veg shortening*)
  • 2 Tbs sea salt (or regular salt - to taste) + more for simmering water
  • 3-4 Tbs ground black pepper and/or pepper medley (to taste - use more than you think you need!)
  • 2 Tbs ground white pepper
  • 3 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1 Tbs ground allspice
  • 2 tsp ground mace
  • 1 Tbs ground coriander
  • 1 Tbs ground cinnamon
  • 2 Tbs thyme (double if fresh)
  • 2 Tbs rosemary (double if fresh)
  • 2 Tbs sage (double if fresh)
  • 2 tbs mustard powder
  • 1-3 tsp cayenne (depending on how spicy you want it)
  • 11-12 oz dark ale or stout (Try an oatmeal or pumpkin stout! Or just use Guinness)
  • 2-3 (or so) cups reserved stock
In advance - morning of or night before:  
  • *if using lard or shortening in place of suet, freeze in advance so you will be able to grate it properly.
  • Soak and prep casing(s) according to package directions. The synthetic ones usually only require an hour or less, total.
  • Place liver and heart (cut into 1/4 lb or so pieces if too big) in a pot with enough cold water to cover and a heaping Tbs salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer 30-45 minutes. Remove meat and refrigerate to cool.
  • Reduce stock to about 3-4 cups and reserve
 At prep/cook time:
  • Toast oats for 20 or so minutes in 350 °F oven or heavy skillet on stovetop, stirring/shaking occasionally, until golden and toasty smelling, but not burnt, and let them cool.
  • Start ground meats browning in a heavy skillet, crumbling as it cooks.
  • Chop half the onion coarsely, and grate or finely mince the other half (If using a food processor, just take out half the onion when coarse chopped, then pulse the rest a little longer)
  • Add onion and garlic to the browning meat, and sauté until barely translucent and the meat is all browned. Allow to cool some, then transfer to large mixing bowl (or food safe tub, or something).
  • Grate liver and suet(or frozen lard/shortening) and add to mix.
  • Pulse/finely chop heart and any other whole cuts of meat and put it in the mixing container.
  • Dump in your oats, herbs, and spices, and mix  everything together with your hands until well combined and everything is evenly distributed. (You can use a spoon if you absolutely can't stand the idea of using your hands, but I advise against it.)
  • Add ale/stout and mix it in thoroughly.
  • Add enough of the reserved stock to give the mix a soft, crumbly texture and sort of stay clumped together when you squeeze it - like a slightly too loose meatloaf.
  • Remove casing(s) from water and squeeze out excess
  • Tie one end of casing if not pre-tied.
  • For this step, you can make one giant haggis, OR you can make 2 or 3 smaller ones per casing. To make smaller ones, just cut your casings to the desired size and tie one end closed on each - Stuff casings about 3/4 full with the haggis mixture, leaving space free for expansion (the oats will expand a fair bit whilst cooking). Squeeze out as much air as you can, and tie the other end tightly closed.
  • Smooth out the haggis inside your casing(s) so it's all a uniform diameter and the approximate shape you want to end up with.
  • Poke each casing a couple times with a sewing pin/needle (nothing larger!) to let steam escape.
  • Put the haggis (haggi? LOL) in a large pot of water, bring to just under simmering (180-190°F) hold temp, and cook for about 3 hours.
  • Remove from pot and pat or allow to air dry.
  • Cut open large haggis (with or without the traditional piping in, poetry recitation, pomp, and presentation), and spoon out servings.
  • Serve individual sized haggi (yes, it's a word now) whole and allow everyone to cut their own or cut and squish out "presentation style" before serving.
  • Dig in and enjoy!
  • If you want the full, traditional meal, serve with neeps, tatties, and whisky cream sauce.

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