AS you are probably aware, tonight is Burns Night and some of you will doubtless be dusting off your kilt and dancing shoes in preparation for a night of hearty food, whisky and dancing. Some of you may even have the honour/horror of addressing the haggis or giving the ladies' reply as part of the traditional Burns Supper.
This meal is traditionally three courses of cock-a-leekie soup, haggis and cranachan. These days you might find that the experience has been sanitised slightly, with the haggis served as a starter and a more universally enjoyed main course such as chicken or steak to follow, but Burns purists would surely not approve of downgrading the "great chieftain o' the puddin' race". In some areas of the country it's also been known to substitute stovies for the haggis, though how you go about addressing a stovie is surely a mystery.
While some of you might not be going the whole tartan hog you can still celebrate the life of the Bard even if it is just at home with your family. It is probably too late to make your own haggis, you will be delighted to hear. Trying to stuff a stomach lining with your own mix of sheep offal and oatmeal is not the most pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
Luckily, we have some great Edinburgh butchers who can take care of all the nastiness for you. The world-famous Macsween haggis is always a reliable favourite, though with the 25th being their busiest day of the year you maybe should have booked one in advance. Otherwise, you could try George Bower in Stockbridge, Findlays in Portobello or your own local butcher, who will surely have plenty in stock for the big day.
Of course, there is a way to make haggis without all the blood and guts. While some might balk at the very idea, veggie haggis is a tasty, healthier alternative. Relatively easy to prepare, this dish can be served with all the usual accompaniments and can be tailored to your own particular tastes. Lentils, kidney beans, nuts, mushrooms, oatmeal and carrot, to name only a few, are all typical ingredients. The secret to a good veggie haggis, as with regular haggis, is the spicing. Traditionally, the meaty version uses ground mace, ground cloves, black pepper and nutmeg but since there is no such standard recipe for the vegetarian alternative, you can be a little more imaginative. Cayenne pepper, paprika, and ginger can all be used depending on taste. Fresh or dried herbs are also a great addition, particularly the strong winter flavours of rosemary, thyme and sage.
Of course, we don't want to mess with Burns tradition too much so this should also be served with steaming hot neeps and tatties. For the non-purists, a whisky cream sauce can provide a little extra flavour and moisture to the haggis, which can tend to dry out a little during cooking.
To accompany the veggie version you could make a red wine and onion gravy by reducing down wine, onions, tomatoes and orange juice along with garlic, bay leaves, vegetable stock and gravy browning. This can produce a "meaty" result that often fools dyed-in-the-wool carnivores.
It goes without saying that our national dish shouldn't be treated merely as a prelude to poetry on a cold January evening, but can be enjoyed all year round, either in its traditional form or in a variety of different guises. It often turns up as a stuffing for meat dishes in Scottish restaurants, and actually makes a rather good soup. The vegetarian version is particularly versatile, proving popular as a filling for filo pastry dishes, or even cold in a roll or sandwich. Recently it has even made inroads into Indian cuisine, with haggis pakora cropping up. I'm sure that Burns would have approved of this egalitarian development.
So once you have the haggis in the pot, the neeps and tatties ready for mashing and your Burns memorised, all that remains is to choose a good whisky to accompany the dinner. Islay malts such as Laphroaig, Ardbeg and Bunnahabhain are always popular for their distinctive peaty qualities.
Drams should really be taken neat, but you may want to have a jug of water standing by for the faint-hearted. If anyone asks for lemonade or ice a stony glare will usually put them right.
• Andy McGregor is chef/proprietor at Blonde Restaurant, 75 St Leonard's Street, 0131-668 2917
Vegetarian haggis with whisky cream sauce
2 medium onions, diced
2 medium carrots, diced
100g mushrooms, washed and sliced
100g red lentils
50g red kidney beans, cooked and mashed
75g flaked almonds
50g ground hazelnuts
400g pinhead oatmeal
3 sprigs rosemary, chopped
3 sprigs thyme, chopped
1 tbsp paprika
1 tbsp mixed spice
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 ltr vegetable stock
50ml soy sauce
30ml lemon juice
30ml sunflower oil
Salt and black pepper
Pre-heat the oven to 200C.
Saut the onion, carrots and mushrooms in the sunflower oil for 4-5 mins. Add the lentils and half vegetable stock and simmer. Mix the mashed kidney beans with the remaining stock, along with the almonds, hazelnuts, herbs, soy sauce and seasonings. Add to the pan and cook for a further 10 mins. Add the oatmeal and simmer for 10 mins more, adding some more liquid if necessary.
Spoon the mixture into a greased baking tin and bake for 30 mins.
Serve with mashed potatoes and mashed turnip.
Whisky cream sauce:
3 shallots, diced
100ml vegetable stock
2 measures whisky
2 bay leaves
250ml double cream
Salt and ground black pepper
Saut the shallots with the butter, add the whisky, vegetable stock and bay leaves, simmer for 2 mins, then add the cream. Season with salt and pepper then reduce by half.