This week, a Scotch Highland Chili I’ve been working on tied for first place in a chili cook off. Impressive though it may sound, there were really only four other chilies in the running. On the other hand, the competition did take place at a local brewpub whose staff knows a thing or two about cooking–and tasting–good food. This is the story of a chili that begins with a wager some fifteen years ago now in “a land of timeless beauty,” (it’s hard to think of Scotland without also hearing the trailer to Braveheart in my mind). The year: 1998. The bet: to eat an entire serving of haggis (exactly why that’s a bet should become abundantly clear as you read on). And hanging in the balance: a bottle of Irish liquor. It was Scott, one of my 14 flatmates in London, who threw down the gauntlet just prior to our leaving on a week-long furlough. He was off for the Emerald Isle (where Irish liquor could be procured) and I, for the enchanted city of Edinburgh and the Highlands (where haggis appears on the menus of local pubs).
Images from that trip inevitably present themselves to the mind, all of which went into the forging of this chili recipe: a tribute to the land, the people, and the local fare of a distant country which have left an indelible mark on the imagination. There’s the royal city of Edinburgh into which we rolled with the light of dawn, having spent the night traveling via a double-Decker bus. The old city of Edinburgh: seemingly built of black and gray bricks, laden with cobblestone streets, and resting on an abandoned (but haunted) underground city. High on some bluff and looking out, were we able to catch a glimpse of the city of St. Andrews on the sea, the place where golf was invented? It was, nevertheless, on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile (I think) that we ate at a tavern which served up the haggis: a traditional dish prepared with ground liver, heart, and tongue of sheep–mixed with oats, herbs, and spices–and cooked in a sheep’s stomach (mine was served sans the stomach: it’s easier to stomach, you see). This I consumed, thinking of the Irish liquor that would be mine. The mind travels now north of Edinburgh into the reaches of Inverness and Loch Ness: cooler, grayer, a land of rolling mountains–more desolate but full of a pristine and rustic grandeur. This was my first trip to Scotland. To the west coast of Scotland I would return on a Bank Holiday weekend to spend a couple of nights on the Island of Aran, biking among the rolling hills and fields of heather.
What, then, would a Scotch Highland chili look like? It certainly would be a nod in the direction of haggis, thus my use of coriander, nutmeg, and toasted Bob’s Red Mill steel cut oats (the winner of Scotland’s Golden Spurtle World Porridge Making Contest). It would also include a certain smokiness reminiscent of the peat in particular Scotch whiskys, reminiscent of the smoke rising from stone houses dotting the Highland countryside. The smokiness in the chili was achieved through the use of Applewood Smoked Sea Salt. This dish would contain a healthy amount of Founder’s Dirty Bastard Scotch Style Ale (the version of this Scotch Highland chili that tied for first place this week, however, used Brewery Vivant’s Ancho Rauchbier, a smoky Bavarian-style ale [delicious!]). The beans are soaked overnight in the ale, the toasted steel cut oats are cooked in it to al dente, and it is substituted for the use of any beef broth, though a combination of broth and beer may be used. At the heart of the dish: ground beef from the iconic Highland cattle. The use of this heritage meat was, for me, the hardest part of the recipe: it is, on its own, so full of flavor–and can be so sweet, dark, and savory–that you just hate combining it with all the seasonings that a chili recipe calls for. Instead, the ground of Highland beef is put to its best use by sprinkling it generously with salt and pepper and throwing it on the grill to make one heck of a burger. That will allow its flavor to really stand out. But, you know what? It’s the ground of Highland beef that gave this chili its soul.
How does one enhance the enjoyment of this rich, beefy, mahogany chili? A few thoughts. On a cold winter (or chilly autumn) night, paired with a Scotch Ale. Just be sure to follow up with a single malt Scotch and cigar, the cigar being the natural progression from the smokiness of the chili and the Scotch whisky, from the Scotch Ale. Or, as Oscar season is nearly upon us, cradle a bowl of it while taking in the movie Braveheart, winner of five academy awards at the 68th Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director). But, above all else, prepare this dish with Scottish folk music playing in the background. That recipe, incidentally, may be found by clicking here. Since this chili is a work in progress, I’d love your feedback–especially if you find ways that the dish may be improved. As it’s put in the Scottish/Gaelic tongue, Ith gu leòir! (Eat plenty!).