It's not just Proust. Everyone has fond memories of the food of childhood. For those of us who are second or third generation name-your-ethnicity, the meals of home may be the only link we have to the old country. In my case, it's the auld country, with a twist.
I come, on my mothers' side, from a line of Scottish Jews, or, as we call them, the Hebrews of the Hebrides. When the pogroms of Czarist Russia sent the Jews fleeing continental Europe, many Jews ended up in New York, Toronto, Buenos Aires, and other major urban areas. My relatives went to Glasgow.
Before you start snickering, you should know that Scotland, unlike other countries, has no history of antisemitism, and Glasgow had a thriving Jewish community for many years. It was primarily working class; my family included hat-trimmers, kilt-makers, and such. These days the Jewish population is centered in Edinburgh, where they celebrate Rabbi Burns Night every year. There's even a Jewish tartan you can wear as a symbol of your tribe (which is not so different from a clan, after all).
In my family, we never ate haggis (although we joked about it, in which case we called it "googis." Why? I don't know.) We subsisted primarily on the American national diet of the 1960s and 70s: meatloaf, spaghetti (with Parmesan cheese from the shiny green can), pork chops. As a special treat, when my parents went out for the evening, we had Swanson's TV dinners, which we got to eat on real faux-wood tv trays while watching Gilligan's Island. Salisbury steak, anyone?
But when my parents went out of town, our heritage came back to bite us—Aunt Nettie would come to stay. Aunt Nettie was my mother's aunt. She was tiny and sharp. She went about her day singing constantly under her breath in a very high, very reedy voice. She knit at machine speed; she knit us sweaters, sweater vests, tams, scarves, and many, many skunk mittens, which had googly eyes and pom poms and a white stripe down the back. Sadly, Aunt Nettie always made everything slightly too small, so that you could never wear anything knit for you without discomfort. Because I was the older child, I almost never fit into an Aunt Nettie garment. My mother had told us that in the early years, Aunt Nettie was responsible for knitting for the family, and that they all had hand-knit underwear. I wonder sometimes exactly how long Aunt Nettie had been making things slightly too small.
At the beginning of her stay with us, Aunt Nettie would make up a giant pot of mince. This recipe consisted of ground beef, which you browned in onion, and perhaps a little carrot or potato. Not too much salt, and I think that's it. It was unspeakably bland (that's the Scottish part) and we had to eat helping after helping of it (that's the Jewish part). The purpose of the giant pot was so that nothing else needed to be cooked for the entire stay - it lasted through every meal.
On the other hand, Aunt Nettie was a glorious baker, and she made meltingly delicious shortbread, butter tarts, flea's graveyard (which is a sort of raisin bar), empire biscuits, cherry cake....They were wonderful, despite the fact that she made them all with margarine, which of course is much cheaper than butter. Unfortunately, she would get angry when we ate up the treats, because she had worked so hard to make them.
Needless to say we were always delighted to see Mom and Dad when they returned from the trip.
But truly, Scottish food is not always ridiculous; it can also be sublime. So when Scotland came up on the random generator, I went to Sue Lawrence's delightful A Cook's Tour of Scotland. Her recipe for Roast Rib of Beef with Skirlie and Claret Gravy reminded me of the grass-fed Highland cattle from McLaughlin Farm I had in the freezer, and one thing led to another, and with a couple of traditional side dishes, there was dinner. When it was all set up to be photographed, Joe wandered into the kitchen.
"Really, this is Scottish food? But it doesn't look gross!"
Roast Beef with Skirlie
(adapted from A Cook's Tour of Scotland)
Preheat the oven to 450º. Meanwhile, bring to room temperature:
1 2-lb roast of Scottish beef
Cut up and place in a baking or roasting pan:
5 small white potatoes
Lay beef on top of potatoes and and roast for 15 minutes. Lower heat to 350º and roast about 20 minutes more for medium-rare meat, or to your liking. Remove beef from oven and set on a carving board (or a cutting board) to rest. (Resting is a good technique to use for any roast meat, because it allows the juices to redistribute through the meat. If you slice a roast when it's just come out of the oven, it well be a little dry and uneven.) If the potatoes are not yet done, put them in another pan or wrap them in foil and return them to the oven.
To make gravy, put the roasting pan over direct heat. (Remove some of the fat if it's too greasy for you. This will depend on the roast you use.) Sprinkle in:
2 T potato starch
Stir well, scraping up all the flavorful brown bits from the pan and smoothing out any lumps that may have formed. Add:
1/2 c red wine or brandy (or Scotch, but not the good stuff—that, you should just drink)
Whisk and continue to cook until smooth and thick. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Meanwhile, make the skirlie:
In a frying pan, melt:
3-4 T butter, beef dripping, bacon fat, or oil of choice
When hot, sauté until soft:
1-2 medium white onions, chopped fine
1 c coarse, high quality oatmeal
Cook, stirring, until toasted and crumbly, about 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Carve the beef and serve with the gravy, skirlie, potatoes, and traditional vegetables, to wit:
1 bunch curly kale
Remove the coarse part of the ribs and chop the kale roughly. Steam in a vegetable steamer, or sauté quickly in a frying pan, using the water clinging to the leaves.
The humble rutabaga, encased in paraffin so it doesn't dry out
Bashed neeps, as mashed rutabaga is known in Scotland, is truly delicious, fresher and sweeter than turnips or mashed potatoes. I don't know why it isn't more popular. Admittedly the rutabaga is unprepossessing in looks, but what character!
Joe: "We're having bashed neeps? Duuude, cool!"
Peel a largish rutabaga. I find this easiest to do by cutting off both ends so I can stand the rutabaga on its end, and then slicing off the skin and the wax coating (without which the rutabaga would dry out very quickly) in downward strokes. Cut the rutabaga in 1-inch chunks and boil until soft. Drain, add a lump of butter and a little grated cheddar or any other cheese, or nothing at all, and mash. Yum.
Steamed kale and bashed neeps