Best Laid Schemes

Serve a platter of whisky-doused salmon canapés at your next Burns Supper.
One score and three years ago, we hosted our first Burns Supper, a celebration of the great Scottish poet, Robert Burns (1759-1796).

The 19th century practice of honoring Scotland’s national bard with a toast on or about January 25 has evolved into a sometimes formal scholarly supper over the past two hundred years. Acts include eating of a traditional Scottish meal, drinking of Scotch whisky, and recitations by, about, and in the spirit of the poet’s extraordinary body of work.

Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan cites
“My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose”
as his greatest lyrical inspiration.
Of Mice and Men, a novel by John Steinbeck
The title "Of Mice and Men" is
borrowed from the poem "To a Mouse",
as is the title of this post.
Catcher in the Rye, a novel by JD Salinger
The title of JD Salinger's novel
references a misapprehension of
a line from "Comin' thro' the rye".
Robert Burns was born in a small town in Scotland on January 25, 1759, eldest son of tenant farmers. His education began at home and continued formally in Kirkoswald: by age 15, the main laborer at the family’s Mount Oliphant farm was extremely well read.

To offset the drudgery of farm work, Robert began writing verses declaring his love to local lassies. He continued to write poems and songs through several family moves; a journey through flax-dressing; membership in the Masonic Lodge; the aftermath of his father's death; and several fruitful love affairs.

His first major volume of verse, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was published in July 1786. The book’s subject matter, mainly the themes of love, life, and nature, appealed to all classes of Scottish society, leading to the poet’s nearly instant success.

Although a farmer's son with a dubious reputation of womanizer and later, taxman, Burns was first and foremost an artist full of creative political passion. His ability to humorously explore the human condition is his legacy. His works celebrate honest labor, social equality, and international brotherhood, still inspiring confidence in Scotland as a nation centuries later.

On a whim and without any notion other than the idea that we would — and not necessarily in this order — eat traditional foods, read Burns, and drink whisky, we set about planning our meal to celebrate this fascinating cultural icon.

We knew that legendary Scottish dish haggis was a must, and scoured the Brooklyn library’s shelves for the recipe. A concoction of sheep entrails, oats, and spices stuffed into a sheep’s stomach, we decided that haggis is a dish best left to experts. One of our group, blessed with car ownership, volunteered to venture out to Kearny, NJ and procure the “great chieftain o' the puddin'-race”.

Whisky sauce was easy enough, a dish of “neeps and tatties” less so: "tatties” (potatoes) were readily located, but “neeps” (rutabagas) were erroneously identified as turnips. “Cranachan” left us scratching our heads, so we concocted a Drambuie trifle, adding plates of shortbread for good measure. We left bagpipes and battle songs to the proper Scots, and chose classical music inspired by Scotland.

As most things done without understanding of traditional form, our evening was an enthusiastic, entirely inauthentic gastro-literary affair.

The one Scot among us had the honor of reciting Burns’s “Address to a Haggis”. After the ceremony, the symbolic heart of Burns Night remained largely untouched, too soggy from our overly enthusiastic whisky toast. Apart from "Auld Lang Syne", further recitations were incoherent renditions, supper may have been eaten, the abundant wee drams obscuring all details from memory.

However inaccurate our first gathering, the good vibes engendered by amateur readings, adequate food, and considerable whisky resonates on in the recipe that evolved.

A pioneer of the Romantic Movement, Burns rejected rules, classes, and conventions, and wrote movingly of love, land, and lice. We reject the traditional pour of a dram over the haggis, and douse Scottish salmon instead. Slàinte mhath!

Burns Night Salmon

Serves 6

whisky-doused salmon
We think that whisky-doused salmon is a suitable dish to celebrate Scotland’s best-loved bard. Serve as an appetizer at your next gathering, and be prepared to enjoy yourselves beyond expectation.
  • 1 pound very fresh skin-on Scottish salmon fillet
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
  • 1 tablespoon peaty Scotch whisky
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
Place the salmon in the freezer for 1 hour to firm up the flesh. Using a very sharp knife, thinly slice the salmon at a sharp diagonal, cutting with the grain of the fish. Discard the skin.

Lay the slices in a single layer in a 9x13-inch glass baking dish.

In a small bowl, mix together sugar, salt, black pepper and dill. Sprinkle evenly over salmon slices. Mix lemon juice and whisky together; drizzle evenly over salmon. Cover dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 12.

To serve: Drain salmon slices, arrange on a platter, accompanied by lemon wedges, rustic bread or Scottish oatcakes, some soft butter or a bit of crème fraîche, and a wee dram of your favorite whisky.
Celebrate Burns Night with a wee dram and some whisky-doused salmon appetizers
A platter of whisky-doused salmon appetizers

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