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The Whole Beast

Nose to Tail Eating
by Fergus Henderson

The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating

 

An important book crossed the pond recently, much to the delight of chefs, foodies and armchair gastronomes. Originally published in Britain as Nose to Tail Eating, Fergus Henderson's book was reissued in the U.S. as The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating. Henderson, of course, is the celebrated head chef and co-owner of St. John, the Smithfield (London) restaurant that prepares and serves the cuts of meat and parts of animals that generally do not capture the attention (and palates) of Americans. Such foods have been given the unseemly name "offal:" duck hearts, lamb's brains, calf's heart, pig's trotter and the like. Before you react, consider that "nose to tail eating" has a much bigger meaning. And, frankly, it's delicious if you are willing to take a fresh look at an overlooked food category.

"If I’m ever sentenced to death, I want Fergus Henderson to cook my last meal. The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating is a cult classic from my favorite chef and favorite restaurant in the world."

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential

Fergus Henderson is not the type of person to set out to define a genre or conduct a grand experiment. Rather, his focus on offal stems from an unpretentious desire to cook what he wants to cook, and serve great food unconstrained by trendiness. St. John has been open almost ten years, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Even with consistent accolades and recognition from globetrotting, media-darling chefs like Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali, St. John's success stems from the culinary integrity of Henderson and his business partner, Trevor Gulliver. While it is a serious restaurant, their objective is to serve great food that might otherwise be ignored.

Such, too, is the theme of The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating. It is 200 paperback pages, no photographs, and only a splash of color on the cover. The handful of drawings dress things up a bit, but this book is all about the food. If you enjoyed Anthony Bourdain praising Henderson and St. John in Cook's Tour, you love his introduction to The Whole Beast: Bourdain considers this book "a historic document," but also tempers that lofty suggestion with the reality that Henderson did not intend to make a statement, but to remind us of "what is good about food, about the essential, nearly forgotten elements of a great meal…a refutation only of waste and disregard.

And that's exactly what you get, almost 150 recipes that appreciate many things we might otherwise not eat.

The definitive voice of The Whole Beast speaks mostly about dishes like a nice snack of Duck Hearts on Toast "for the cook who has just prepared five ducks." Think about this: you sauté some duck hearts in a very hot pan with butter and then splash with balsamic vinegar and chicken stock. After they sit for a few minutes and render luxuriant liquor, put them on toast, sauce and eat. Try this and you'll be converted. If you like pork, what could possibly be wrong about Crispy Pig's Tails? Pig tails are the embodiment of the best things about pork, and here Henderson braises them in the oven for several hours, then breads, pan fries and roasts them before serving. You will adore gnawing on these delicacies.

Sure, the soups (Chicken Broth and Wild Garlic, or Leek, Potato and Oyster Soup) are great, and the salads (Grilled Jerusalem Artichoke, Red Onion, and Olives, or Mussels, Cucumber and Dill) are worthwhile, but, again, set some time aside to try things you never considered. There's plenty. Splurge on Rolled Pig's Spleen. With a texture similar to liver, it is rolled with smoked bacon, oven braised in stock and eaten cold; sliced and served with red onions and cornichons. Stop to think how good this could be.

Henderson includes four recipes for lamb's brains which are currently banned in England, ready for when they are "freed from (their) sentence." He says they are "delicious, creamy, and rich." So why not eat them…cold on toast, in a terrine, deep-fried, or fried with endive and shallots.

It's not possible to fairly cover The Whole Beast in a review. The foods are diverse, interesting and groundbreaking for most people. Listen to a sampling of what's included: a lovely prune-studded Duck Neck Terrine; meat dishes like Boiled Ox Tongue, Deviled Kidneys of lamb, and Kid and Fennel; bird and game recipes for Confit of Rabbit Leg in Broth, Duck Legs and Carrot, and Roast Quail; and fish like Salt Cod and Beans, Smoked Eel, Bacon and Mashed Potatoes, and Soft Roes on Toast.

Many of Henderson's vegetables are standouts, even in the company of such bold main dishes. Green Beans, Shallots, Garlic and Anchovies go great with lamb, while Baked Celeriac and Eggs is a perfect cold-weather meal by itself. He includes sauces and relishes, including St. John Chutney— which is the only one you'll ever need. And after all of this, there's room for desserts like Treacle Tart and Chocolate Ice Cream.

But we won't spoil the surprise. There's a lot more to this book. Buy it. Use it. While some ingredients will be elusive, the recipes are well written and easy to follow. If St. John's Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad is Bourdain's choice for a "Death Row Meal," if Fergus Henderson has captured the palates of Boulud and Batali, there's something here to get excited about.

Reviewed by Kevin Schoeler


(Updated: 01/16/08 SB)

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