An Ode To Haggis: A Robert Burns Day Dinner by Chef Brian Ricci of Brick and Mortar

I spoke with Chef Brian Ricci about this Thursday’s (1/21) Robert Burns Dinner at Brick and Mortar. Along with haggis and other specials that have been running since Tuesday, the informal, open seating dinner serves to celebrate the Scottish poet (ahead of his 1/25 birthday) along with the national dish he famously name-checked on “Address to a Haggis”. Discussing the dish—which I tried for the first time Wednesday(an enjambment of delicate offal flavors and rich fat balanced by inflections of Scotch and sweet Sherry, as well as the inclusion of toasted oats and barley)—yielded up insights into how Ricci’s UK travels informs his life as a chef.

Brion Shreffler: How do you prepare your haggis?
BrianRicci:What we’ve done in the past, what I like to do is control the size and portion of it, so that means instead of short serving it in the traditional sheep’s bladder or stomach, we do it wrapped in caul fat. So instead of being a portion that would suit one or more perhaps, we can control it to the gram. So I do 175 gram portions that I cook out in advance, cool down, and then basically wrap in caul fat individually and portion it out.
Brion: The caul fat acts as a sticky net.
Brian Ricci: Exactly. Instead of putting it into a sausage casing…caul fat is the lining of an animal’s stomach so what we basically do with that is use it as an elastic webbing that almost has a window pane quality. You stuff you haggis into it and it allows you to shape it anyway you want, more or less. From that point, it is ready to roast in a pan. The caul fat is something that is basically something that will render as you cook it. It will take some color—you can caramelize and roast it as you turn it. You can baste the whole haggis in butter, which is what we do. [Our prep] allows you to do a lot as opposed to being relatively limited by cooking it inside one specific vessel (stomach or bladder) and breaking it table side.

Brion: Are you making a “truly authentic” haggis or are you restricted by what the FDA allows?
Brian Ricci: I’m not able to get the lungs. Heart, kidneys, liver, lungs—that’s really it as far as the ingredients I’m aware of.
Brion: If you’re in Scotland, is everyone using the lungs?
Brian Ricci: I don’t think a lot of people make it. Unless you’re really cooking, cooking, I don’t think a lot of people are making it. A lot of people are buying it. There are two companies in Scotland that manufacture it and basically, this is there time of the year where they crush it. They crush it on January 25th. They destroy it—and they actually started making a vegetarian one. I’m not sure if it’s vegan.

Brian Ricci. courtesy of Brick and Mortar.

Brian Ricci. courtesy of Brick and Mortar.

Brion: God forbid if it was only vegetarian haggis.
Brian Ricci: Times call for a certain change in what is available and they were like, you know what, that’s another portion of the pie that we are not getting. Let’s monopolize everything. So they did that. We’d have to look at the list of ingredients in regard to what they’re able to use. In an ideal world, sure, you’d love to be able to use everything exactly the way you want to use it. But if you know where your animals are coming from, you have to be happy with that too.

Brion: What is it about the lungs that makes unavailable here?
Brian Ricci: That’s a good question. I don’t know. Maybe they can’t control the hygiene of how they’re cared for[to produce a good product]—I don’t know. I also don’t think there’s a big call for it as a food source. Maybe they [the FDA] just think it’s a weird thing.
Brion: Do you use the same supplier for the offal that you go to for everything else?
Brian Ricci: We’re using our new supplier—currently we’re getting a lot from Pat LaFrieda. All their lamb I get is Colorado lamb. Lamb is one of the things you buy in the states that basically has to be pasture raised. You can buy from specific places. There’s actually a lot of wonderful places to buy it up and down the east coast that have a pretty small niche market but I don’t have much of a relationship with all those particular places, so for me, it’s a little bit easier to use my guy, give him the specifics of what I want weeks in advance, then have him go, mark out what I need.
Brion: While Pat LaFrieda is incredibly well known and sought after is it still incredibly cheaper to buy offal?
Brian Ricci: Not really the case anymore. Not necessarily. A really good example of something that is no longer inexpensive is sweetbreads. Veal sweetbreads, for example—not cheap. That was something people would put on their menu—this was a relatively long time ago, like 15 years ago—that was like, oh, these are cool, these are different, you should try these, and we can make money off of it. Now, I’m buying them for seven or eight dollars a pound. It’s crazy to then turn around and charge $15 or $18 for a sweetbread dish. A lot of people would be like, I’m not paying for that. It’s the thymus gland of an animal. Why would I do that when I can get a wonderful cut of pork. So it’s weird. Not for all cuts [offal] but those in particular. Hearts are still relatively inexpensive. We’ll use calves hearts from time to time. We’ll marinate them and put them on the grill. Those have had a pretty stable price range.
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