Happy birthday, Robert Burns! Born in poverty, mostly self-educated, called “the ploughman poet,” Robert Burns worked from childhood as a farm laborer, moving with his family from farm to farm. Later in life his success as a poet allowed him to mingle with some of the wealthiest and most influential people of the day and to discuss with them the latest political and philosophical topics. But he maintained the questioning view of an outsider, indefinable and above the fray. His poetry examines our place in the world as humans, and exposes the frivolity of finding difference between people because of class or wealth, judgements that seem even more ridiculous in the face of the indifference of the natural world. Burns wrote about lice and mice and love and revolution. His poems are simple, honest and direct, but full of music in their words and rhythms. He collected Scottish folk songs, and adapted these as poetry, and adapted his poems as songs.
He spoke of the value of simple things and honesty over dissemblance and finery, and of the basic equality of all people the world over…
Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will for a’ that,
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth
Shall bear the gree an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man the warld o’er
Shall brithers be for a’ that.
One of my favorite Burns poems, which makes me like him so much, is To a Mouse, on Turning Up Her Nest With a Plough, November 1785. (The best laid plans of mice and men…) It’s so sweet and specific, so compassionate and thoughtful, a gentle reflection on the value of all life, his own relationship with nature, the universal anxiety of surviving winter’s hardships, and on memory and anticipation, as well.
To a Mouse
On Turning her up in her Nest, with the Plough, November 1785.
Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickerin brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!
I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen-icker in a thrave
’S a sma’ request:
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave,
An’ never miss ’t!
Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin!
An’ naething, now, to big a new ane,
O’ foggage green!
An’ bleak December’s winds ensuin,
Baith snell an’ keen!
Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ waste,
An’ weary Winter comin fast,
An’ cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro’ thy cell.
That wee-bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou’s turn’d out, for a’ thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the Winter’s sleety dribble,
An’ cranreuch cauld!
But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!
On Burns night we make vegetarian haggis. It is comprised of french lentils, roasted mushrooms, oatmeal, nuts, herbs & spices and a dash of whisky. Of course a traditional haggis is boiled inside an animals’s stomach, but we don’t do that. I’ve baked it inside of pastry before, flakey or yeasted. But my all-time favorite way to eat it is baked inside of big beautiful chard leaves. I think it looks pretty, and the chard adds a lovely flavor as it holds everything together. If you leave out the cheese and use olive oil instead of butter, this is vegan. UPDATE: This time I made a stretchy yeasted dough with a little olive oil (like a pizza dough). I took a handful and stretched it very thin in a big circle. I lined that with chard leave, piled the filling on, and then brought the edges up to make a big bundle. BEST EVER!
1/2 cup french lentils
1 bay leaf
10 oz button mushrooms (just regular white mushrooms, although baby bellas or portobellas work as well)
a few T olive oil
1 medium-sized onion or two shallots, diced quite fine
1/2 fennel bulb, diced quite fine
Bit of butter
Splash of white wine
1 cup rolled oats, toasted till fragrant and lightly brown
1 cup mixed nuts, roughly chopped
1/2 cup kidney beans
1 cup grated sharp cheddar
about 4 T butter, cut into pieces
1 T whisky (I used laphroaig, which has a lovely smokey flavor)
1 T lemon juice
1/2 t. smoked paprika
pinch each nutmeg and allspice
lots and lots and lots and lots of black pepper
6 or 7 very large chard leaves
Combine the lentils and about a quart of water in a medium sized pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 20 – 25 minutes until soft but al dente. Drain, but retain the cooking water for soup stock. (Remove the bay leaf)
preheat oven to 400.
Cut or rip the mushrooms into a fine dice. It doesn’t need to be completely even – variation will just give the mushrooms nice texture.
Add finely chopped herbs. Drizzle olive oil over and mix well. Bake in the oven for about 15-20 minutes. Stir frequently. After about 10 minutes add finely diced garlic.
The mushrooms go through a few stages while they cook. They’ll release their juices, and then they’ll dry up again, and eventually get crispy and caramelized. This is what we’re going for! You don’t want them to be black and charred, but don’t be afraid to let them get quite dark brown. They’ll reduce a lot, too, you might end up with about a cup.
Season well with salt and pepper.
In a large frying pan over medium heat warm the olive oil and butter. Add the fennel, stir and cook till it starts to brown. Add the shallot, stir and cook till it starts to brown. Add the fennel. Add a big slug of white wine. Lower the heat and cook slowly till the fennel and shallots soften and brown. Add more wine if the pan dries out. Add the herbs, garlic and more white wine or water. Stir to loosen whatever got stuck on the bottom of the pan
Combine everything but the chard leaves in a large bowl and stir to mix well. Leave out about 1 T worth of butter pieces.
In a large pot of salted water, boil the chard leaves for a couple of minutes, until they’re wilted, but still bright. Drain them, and leave to cool for a moment. They don’t need to be completely dry.
Butter a medium-sized bowl or dish. Line the bowl with the chard leaves – starting in the center and moving around like the petals of a flower. Make sure the leaves overlap one another. Their tips should hang over the outside of the bowl.
Press the filling into the leave-lined bowl, and then fold the tips of the chard leaves over. Overlap them again, until you have a smooth, coherent surface of chard leaves. Dot the surface with the remaining tablespoonful of butter.
Bake at 400 for 15 to 20 minutes, till it’s hot through.