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Comfort Food, Scottish Style

We were fortunate over the spring and summer, here in the far north of Scotland.  By all accounts it was the longest period of great weather since the 1950s.  We took a few drives, had mostly clear weather for the friends who came to visit, and marveled at the long, dry, sunshine-filled days.  It was glorious!

Seasons change as they do, and our good run of weather is over for the year.  This afternoon it’s windy, with sleet, rain and hail rattling against the windows; in other words, your typical Highland autumn day.  The landscape is changing, and while I miss the brilliant foliage of my Pennsylvania roots, there are some places not too far from here which put on a decent show, at least until the gales blow the leaves from the trees.  That never takes long, and by now many of the trees are bare.

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In a few weeks we’ll only have full daylight from around 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., sometimes even less.  As always, this darkening time of year brings a feeling of drawing-in, of seeking warmth and stocking up.  For me, it also brings with it a desire for hearty, warm, sustaining comfort food.

It’ll be different foods for different people, of course, since comfort comes in many tasty forms.  I remember many years ago after a very sad breakup I phoned my mother and asked if I could come over for dinner.  “I don’t care what else you make,” I said, “as long as it involves mashed potatoes.”  I would have been happy with a huge plate of that and nothing more, to be honest.  But at a time when I was broken-hearted and didn’t think I had a laugh left in me, my Mama came through.  “I’m not going to comment on the breakup,” she said when I arrived, “but here’s dinner.”  Along with a warm, buttery, creamy mountain of mashed potatoes, she’d made “beer-can-up-the-butt chicken”, which was another favorite of mine – delicious, and with the added benefit of providing unspoken commentary on her opinion of the ex-boyfriend!

Here in Scotland I discovered new-to-me comfort foods which have become familiar over time.  Unfortunately they do not tend to photograph very well.  But I will describe some of them, at least.  The first one that comes to mind is something called “stovies,” a stick-to-the-ribs meal that warms you up like a glowing internal furnace.  I was going to add a link to a recipe but to paraphrase one website, “Fifty different Scots will give you fifty different recipes for stovies.”  The Scot I’m married to keeps his stovies simple: all he requires are beef sausages, onions and potatoes.  His instructions:  “Chop up an onion and fry it a little, chop the sausages into bite-sized pieces and grill them a little bit [in the US I would call that ‘put them under the broiler’, by the way], cut up a few tatties, throw it all together in a deep pan with some water and cook it down until it has turned into a wonderful slush.”  You can see how that would not make the prettiest of photographs!

Traditionally served with oatcakes (though we don’t bother; we just add a sprinkle of white pepper, and serve), stovies will burn your mouth off if you aren’t careful – this is a dish that really holds the heat!  But that’s why there’s nothing better on a chilly winter evening.  Stovies guarantee a full, warm belly.

Then there’s what seems to be everyone’s favorite in the Highlands:  mince ‘n’ tatties.  By mince I mean ground beef, and tatties are, of course, potatoes.  Mince and tatties are often served with “white pudding” which is neither white nor a pudding in the dessert sense.  Ingredients vary but white pudding is basically made of oatmeal and suet or fat, onions, and spices, all in a sort of sausage casing.  Not to be confused with black pudding, that similar dish not for the faint of heart (also known as blood pudding), white pudding is the perfect complement to mince and tatties.  It’s kind of a heart-stopper so we don’t have it often, but I do love it.

As with stovies, different people make mince in different ways, but Sem’s method is to combine ground beef with chopped onions (and sometimes chopped carrots if the mood strikes), add just enough water to cover, and let it simmer for a couple of hours.  It is thickened before serving, either with corn starch or Bisto (a flavored gravy-thickening powder).  So basically it’s ground beef and onions in gravy, served with boiled or mashed potatoes and white pudding.  It’s the basis for cottage pie, too – another comfort food, pretty much just mince with a mashed potato ‘lid’, minus the white pudding.

Mince & tatties.

The ratio of white pudding to potatoes is probably wrong, but I really am fond of white pudding, hence the giant serving!]

White pudding ingredients bring me to a real staple of the Scottish diet both past and present:  oatmeal.  Let’s side-track for a moment, because Sem and I just had a spirited discussion when I double-checked details of the oatmeal-based foods in this article.  Here’s the gist:

Me:  Which kind of oatmeal is used?

Sem:  What do you mean which kind?  Oatmeal is oatmeal.

Me:  No but I mean my version of oatmeal versus yours.

Sem (getting exasperated):  Oatmeal.  Is.  Oatmeal.

Me (flailing a bit):  But do you mean the bitsy oatmeal or the flaky oatmeal?  For example, I would call your version of oatmeal ‘pinhead oats’ and what I would call oatmeal, you would call porridge oats.

Sem (through gritted teeth):  We’re in Scotland.  Oatmeal is oatmeal.  Porridge oats are porridge oats.  Pinhead oats are something else entirely.

Me:  But most of the ANC readers are in the US, so they will think ‘porridge oats’ if I write ‘oatmeal’…

After another round or two and a few deep breaths we finally got there; the language barrier is still sometimes real, dear readers!

Not that long ago, no Scottish farm kitchen was without a ‘kist’ (a Scottish word for chest), which was a large box measuring about three feet long, two feet high, and a foot and a half wide.  The lid slid tightly into place to deter small critters and to help keep the hard-packed contents airtight.  Several months worth of oatmeal could be kept in a kist, and both people and animals were fed from the contents.  Sem’s mother had a green kist in her kitchen which he dearly wishes he still had.  Sadly, while Scotland once probably held thousands of them, kists are a rare find these days.

Here, by ‘oatmeal’ they mean something akin to pinhead oats, but more finely milled (which is why I called it the ‘bitsy’ kind), and that’s what was kept in kists.  What I grew up calling oatmeal in the US (think Quaker Oats) is what they would call porridge oats, here.  This difference in word usage once had me reaching for the wrong thing when I made my mom’s famous ‘oatmeal lace cookies’ – the recipe called for oatmeal, and I’d been here long enough that I reached for the finely milled kind, rather than the Quaker Oats kind.  I couldn’t figure out why it all looked so wrong, first in the batter-stage and then the finished product, until the ‘lightbulb moment’:  I smacked myself in the forehead and muttered, “not oatmeal – porridge oats!”  Not to worry; the lace cookies were still good.  Just not very lacy!

This brings me to another Scottish favorite:  porridge.  But it’s not what you’re thinking of, I’ll bet!  Here in Scotland, oatmeal/porridge is not sweetened at all.  When I first came to live here we often had porridge for breakfast, and Sem would look at me askance as I added brown sugar, nuts, and dried fruit to mine.  Porridge-blasphemy!  They do sell those little cups with flavored oatmeal/porridge here, too (just add boiling water), but the traditional Scottish way is one part porridge oats, two parts water, cooked slowly on the stove until it bubbles like thick lava, then served with milk (or cream if you’re fancy).  When I eventually realized that over just a few months I had consumed an entire half-pound bag of brown sugar all by myself, I stopped using it, but I still favored the addition of nuts and dried fruit.  In the end I got used to – and now prefer – the Scottish version.

Then there’s brose.  It’s one of Sem’s go-to snacks, especially good for when there’s nothing else in the house that he fancies.  Brose is made with oatmeal (not porridge oats) to which he adds a pinch of salt, mixing it together before adding boiling water and giving it a stir.  After it sits for a minute or two he adds a splash of milk, and enjoys. It’s filling and quick to make, always a good thing to look for in a snack.

I’ve got one more traditional oatmeal-based Scottish food for you.  I don’t know if it can be classified as a comfort food, though it certainly is one of my personal favorites and definitely belongs as a side dish to what I’d consider a comfort-meal (a roast chicken dinner).  It is called skirlie (also spelled ‘skirly’).  The humble oat, already bringing us porridge, oatcakes, brose and white pudding among other things, is elevated to new heights, in skirlie.  I don’t know why I love it so, but if I were a condemned woman I would want it as part of my last meal.  Seeing as how I am fortunately not a condemned woman (to my knowledge), I am suggesting it here with Thanksgiving in mind, either as an alternative to stuffing/dressing or as another side dish, because what’s a Thanksgiving meal without as many side dishes as the table can hold?

Part of the allure is that it’s so easy to make!  First, chop an onion and fry it in olive oil until translucent, going to slightly golden but not fully to brown.  You could, of course, go all in and fry it in butter, which is even nicer.  Real purists would probably use some beef dripping, but let’s not go wild!

Once the onions are softened and golden, chuck in a couple of handfuls of oatmeal – that’s oat*meal*, not porridge oats!  I measured it out in the interests of accuracy, so this is two cups of oatmeal.  It would probably serve four people, unless one of them was me, in which case you’d be wise to add another half-cup.  By the way, at this point some folks might add salt and pepper, but we don’t.

Stir thoroughly to get everything coated with oil/butter, then put the lid on the pan, turn the heat down and let it fry lightly, stirring occasionally, until the oatmeal is slightly browned.  It’ll take about 15-20 minutes.  Sometimes I have a little kitchen-panic and think it’s getting too dry so I drizzle a tiny bit more oil in and give it all a good stir.  Sem, who is a veteran skirlie-maker, just walks away from it and comes back once in a while to give it a stir without adding any more oil.

The good thing about skirlie is that you can make it ahead of time, then put it into a covered oven-proof dish to be re-heated when you’re ready to serve up dinner.  If I am invited, and am there early, you will have to hide it from me.

Skirlie is a little dry, so it needs gravy.  My preference is to only add salt and a small amount of gravy because I quite like it somewhat dry.  It has a nice toasty crunch and flavor.

I’m sure there are lots of other Scottish comfort foods which I haven’t thought of, but these seem to be the most popular, from what I’ve seen.  A lot of it is good ol’ stodge, nice and warm to keep the chill at bay.  There are lots of soups, too, of course; Scotch broth, lentil soup, pea soup, and cullen skink (best fish soup ever!) to name a few.  When the days are short and the nights are long, when it’s cold outside but snug indoors, when we need a little emotional boost and physical sustenance, comfort food is where it’s at.

What are your favorites?

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