And no more turn aside and brood
Upon love's bitter mystery;
For Fergus rules the brazen cars,
And rules the shadows of the wood,
And the white breast of the dim sea
And all disheveled wandering stars.
Which is from the poem "Who Goes with Fergus?" by William Butler Yeats and has little if anything to do with the topic at hand, but which is a whacking good little poem. That link gives the whole poem and some illuminating commentary on such things as the odd phrase "brazen cars." And I tend to think that if more people were going through their day with a line like "And all disheveled wandering stars" in their heads, the world would be a slightly better place.
The Fergus I'm in fact talking about is the chef Fergus Henderson , and his two books, of dishes from his Saint John restaurant and Saint John Bread & Wine, in London, are my favorite cookbooks of last year. (I'm actually a little slow on the uptake here--The Whole Beast was first published in 2004, Beyond Nose to Tail in 2007.)
What I love about these books, about this style of cooking, is not necessarily the many ways of cooking lamb brains, or trotters, or pig's head, though those certainly are intriguing. What impresses me is the integrity of Henderson's approach, his embrace of humble ingredients and simplicity in preparation that amounts to a kind of genius, almost revolutionary (counter-revolutionary?) in an age of "molecular gastronomy" and the like.
Consider this salad of red winter vegetables:
I couldn't wait to make this dish from The Whole Beast: Boiled Chicken, Leeks, and Aioli.
Looks pretty plain, I know, but the simple combination of good free-range chicken, poached leeks, and very garlickly aioli, with some good bread, chilled rosé from the south of France--it took us away from Minnesota winter, while still being warming and filling. (I have to say, I would cook the chicken differently next time. Fergus has you put the chicken and aromatics into cold water and bring it up to a boil, then turn it off and let it sit, rewarming the chicken in heated-up stock later. I would cut the chicken up, use the wings and back to help make the stock, simmering that for a while before adding the legs and then the breast to poach, adjusting cooking times for each. I think that would yield more tender meat; it came out a little chewier than ideal in the book's version.)
As I flip through these books, there's hardly anything I don't want to try: Confit of rabbit leg in broth; duck legs and carrots; confit pig's cheek and dandelion; "Orbs of Joy" (red onions baked in chicken stock).
The Whole Beast is short on baked goods and desserts; Beyond Nose to Tail makes up for that failing with an extensive selection of breads and "puddings." Mary made the Apples and Calvados Trifle and couple of weeks ago, and it was a custardy, whipped-creamy, appley delight.
Both books are written with lots of personality. They're idiosyncratic without being "twee," I think the word is. Or maybe they are twee; maybe I like twee. I leave you with this "recipe" for
This recipe has quite particular requirements but, as with any of these recipes, please feel free to adapt them to suit your own situation.
A driftwood fire on a beach in the Hebrides, mackerel caught that day, filleted.... When the embers are just so, place the mackerel, skin-side down, on the griddle. By the time the skin is happy and crispy, the fillets should be cooked.
Pop into a bap with some horseradish, sit on a rock and eat with lots of white wine. 'Did anyone remember to pack the corkscrew?'
Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw, except Grilled Mackerel recipe, copyright 2007 by Fergus Henderson and Justin Piers Gellatly.