“Golf was invented in Scotland. It’s not supposed to be fun.”
I saw that quote in a magazine a while back, and I’m still not sure if it was supposed to be funny or not. I mean when you think about it, things that originate in Scotland are mostly meant to be endured, not enjoyed. Haggis. Bagpipes. Plaid. Robbie Burns. Presbyterianism. Fly fishing. The aforementioned golf. And of course, Scots.
To be fair, not every culture is all bad, Scottish included. So while they do indeed toss cabers and eat nettle soup, they also invented whisky. That alone is enough to forgive all other sins. (On the other hand, whisky is probably what initially produced haggis, bagpipes, plaid, and an awful lot of Scots in the first place.)
Other things on the positive side of the equation? Oatmeal is actually pretty tasty when made right. And they stir it with something called a “spurtle”, which is an excellent word to toss around at parties. “Yeah, this damn prostate problem is driving me crazy. I never thought it could be so tough to spurtle, but now...”
Also, Sheena Easton.
I think she was also a singer.
Oh wait! There’s one more:
There is a grand tradition in many countries of using desiccation – sometimes with smoke, sometimes just a-hangin’ in the cold air – to preserve food. This had the welcome effect of staving off starvation during lean months in the days before refrigeration.*
In Scotland one of the carryover dishes from this primordial era is smoked haddock, or “finnan haddie”. But here’s where things get a little fuzzy for me. A few years ago I got caught between two dress – sorry, kilt – wearing Scotsmen who were engaged in an Islay fueled argument about whether all smoked haddock was called “finnan haddie”, or just that haddock which had been smoked long enough to turn a golden color. (They did agree that the smoked haddock dyed yellow to look aged was a national disgrace – unlike haggis, apparently.) I’m not sure what the final resolution was, as I managed to wriggle past them and out the door before cabers started flying.
Either way I love the stuff and call it “finnan haddie” yellow or not. My mom used to make it for my dad, as his British mother did before her, and that’s how I was introduced to it. However the price of this once peasant dish has since risen to the point where the last time I prepared it for myself was sometime around 2006.
That is, until last Monday. Last Monday I was trawling the aisles of my local Price Chopper looking for replacement sock garters when a familiar golden glint caught my eye. It was coming from the fish counter.
Finnan Haddie! A whole pile of ’em!
And they were on sale!
I practically leaped over the glass case and grabbed the fishmonger by the throat.
“Yo! Fishkeep! Get your halibut over here and serve forth some of that Hebrides haddock!”
“I’d like a half pound of the finnan haddie, please.”
“Oh. Ok. Here.” He handed over a paper cone. It smelled like my old Chevy Nova after I drove it into my neighbor’s compost heap to put out a brake fire.
I immediately abandoned the sock garter quest. Hosiery could wait – I had finnan haddie!
Back home I tore the top off the cone and slid the golden slab of fish onto my cutting board.
Not 10 seconds later NewWifey(tm), back in the computer room on the complete opposite side of the house, yelled out, “HONEY! DID YOU BUILD A CAMPFIRE IN OUR LIVING ROOM AGAIN?!” I heard her padded feet come sprinting down the hall. She slid into the kitchen, eyes wide with fear.
I laughed. “No, it’s just finnan haddie. I promised I’d never try to make S’mores indoors ever again, remember? But that does remind me of a joke: how do Cub Scouts become Boy Scouts? They eat a Brownie!”
She rolled her eyes. “You told me that joke in 2007. It wasn’t funny then either. So what the hell is finnan haddie, and why did you light it on fire?”
“Finnan haddie” I said, “is smoked haddock. It’s Scottish.”
“Why do the Scottish hate haddock so much?” she said.
“They’re Scots. They hate everything. But this stuff is actually really good. You simmer it in milk and onions and stuff to tame it a bit and get it soft, then pour thick cream sauce over it and – ”
She cut me off. “You enjoy” she said, and turned to leave.
“You don’t want to try it?”
“Smoked fish in milk? I’d rather eat haggis.”
“I can make that too. I just need to find sheep lungs.”
She padded back to the computer room without answering.
Fine. More for me.
I made the finnan haddie.
Now let me back up just a minute here, because I gotta set the stage.
Two weeks before, lamb went on sale at Price Chopper. This was highly unusual. Lamb normally only goes on sale twice a year: just before Christmas, and just before Easter. To see it marked down to $2.99/lb a week after Christmas meant there must have been some sort of epidemic that decimated the sheep flocks of Australia and they had to get rid of the carcasses fast. Oh well. Their loss is my meal. I picked up a 7-pounder.
If you’re new to my blog, here’s a quick fun fact: in addition to haggis, smoked milk fish, and sock garters, my wife also hates lamb. I’ve written several entries mentioning this, and it still holds true. So, once again, I went it alone.
I made a pretty simple preparation. Just boned it out, butterflied the meat, spread it with an herb paste and some fruit compote, then rolled it, tied it, and baked it off. Made a stock with the bone.
It was very good. But of course you knew it would be.
I ate that damn roast for the next five days straight. Mostly just sliced as-is, but a few times in more exotic dishes. A bunch went into a batch of Scotch Broth, one of my favorite soups.
It just occurred to me: I actually do like a lot of Scottish stuff, don’t I. Maybe I should forgive them already for being forced to read “Tam o‘ Shanter“ in high school. After all:
Where was I? Oh yeah –
So I’ve eaten all this lamb and now I’m basically down to scraps. But they’re lamb scraps, so I just can’t throw them away. I seriously mulled over the possibility of turning them into lamb ice cream, just to see. But I only had a couple of eggs left, and the crème anglaise base I use to make my ice cream requires at least 8.
So I made pie:
I likes me a good meat pie. But examples around here tend to feature either a small amount of meat bolstered by large amounts of veg and a rather soupy base, or an overly dense, no-filler block of meat that would be better used as a wheel chock (you need some filler to lighten things up, since protein is pretty damn dense. If you wonder why it’s so hard to swallow your meatballs/meatloaf , try using lots more breadcrumbs than you think is necessary next time).
I like plenty of meat, not too many competing flavors, soft texture but not soupy, and Sheena Easton serving it to me. So that’s what I made. To really amp up the lamb flavor I used the rest of the stock, and thickened the entire thing with Chinese sweet (sticky) rice, a roux, AND an egg/cream liaison. I wanted it to set up firm without being dense, and that’s the way to do it. I added a few leftover roasted mushrooms, a bit of miropoix, and a couple of smashed roasted baby potatoes to keep things from getting monotonous, and dusted the top crust with rosemary and sea salt.
It was very good. But of course you knew it would be.
So why am I telling you about my lamb pie in the middle of an entry dedicated to finnan haddie?
I dunno. Vanity, I guess. That’s why I do anything, after all.
But there’s this also: I took a pic of the finnan haddie, but not by itself. I artfully (*cough*) placed a wedge of the aforementioned pie in the shot on a whim. If I’d posted that picture without context, you all would have been terribly confused.
I suppose I should also explain the bread. Finnan haddie is often (in my house, anyway) served with toast points, similar to how Welsh Rabbit is (and it’s “rabbit”, not “rarebit”. Yes it is). But if I’m gonna fork over half a week’s salary for a slab of Scottish smoked haddock, you can bet your single malt that I’m not gonna spoon it over Institution Grade Wonder Bread. I quick whipped up a loaf of basic American white, fortified with a little whole wheat and some vital wheat gluten** to give it a bit more structure, and used that.
(BTW, if you never learn any other cooking thing, learn how to make a basic loaf of white bread. At its simplest it takes 2 hours start to finish with “Quick Rise” yeast. That’s less time than it takes you to drive to the store and buy a loaf…if you blow a tire along the way and have to change it yourself by the side of the road. Anyway, just make the damn thing. You can’t fuck it up, not even you, and it’s world’s better than that aerated sponge you paid $3.99 for just because it comes pre-sliced. Write me if you need a recipe.)
Ok, enough talk. Pictures:
(I read a food photography article that said you should place one of the ingredients of the dish in the shot. Since the lamb wouldn’t stand still long enough, I used mustard powder, which went into the cream sauce. They also said to drop the exposure one stop to evoke a rustic, country setting. I think the article lied. It just looks dark.)
Here’s the pie alone (again, because vanity):
So, that’s why I’m fat. Thanks again, Scotland.
I guess it’s a wash.
Oh, what the hell. Pass the haggis…..
Finally, I know this was a food intensive entry. To make it up to those of you who aren’t interested in such things, here’s a gratuitous picture of my cat winking at you:
We cool now? Good.
* Go watch the movie “Babettes’s Feast”. If you’re a foodie, this is mandatory.
** Do not tell me you are gluten intolerant unless the Celiac test came back positive. You DID get tested when you first suspected you might have a debilitating biological disorder, didn’t you? You realize that “But I feel pukey whenever I eat a cracker!” is not a diagnosis, right? Gluten intolerance is just today’s version of the 80’s MSG hysteria. And no, there is no such thing as “Frankenwheat”. They tested it against historical stocks, and there’s no difference. Go look up “placebo effect”, then make yourself a sandwich. Stop being stupid.)