Friday, January 23, 2009

Fergus Rules

2008 Food & Wine Finds

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:

It's finely julienned raw beets, red cabbage, and red onion, tossed in a very simple vinaigrette, served with a dollop of crème fraiche. You are instructed to "nustle your blob of crème fraiche as if the two ingredients were good friends, not on top of each other as if they were lovers." Then you make a mess of this platonic relationship as it suits you. That's from Beyond Nose to Tail.

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.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like some good reading here. The mackerel recipe painted a strong mental picture. I could imagine myself on that beach cooking it. I used to catch mackerel from the pier at Brighton and with my uncle at Scarborough. On a good day you could make out the large shoals. If you could cast in front of them you would pull in 4 or 5 at a time. We used to smoke them over sawdust right there and then...mackerel is so good fresh like this.
Are those books readily available?

Trout Caviar said...

Hello ESP: Both books have been published in the U.S. I picked them up at a Barnes & Noble. "The Whole Beast" is in paperback.

Thanks for your mackerel memories. It is a wonderful fish when it's fresh.

I have my own fond memory of mackerel on the beach, from a bike trip around lower Nova Scotia nearly 30 years ago. I'd started out riding solo, but on the ferry from Bar Harbor, ME, to Yarmouth, I met a young guy from Ontario who was riding the same route as I. Everyone we met was incredibly friendly, and one afternoon a fisherman just in with his catch bestowed a couple of mackerel upon us, an hour out of the sea. Then on the road down to the beach where we planned to camp, we passed a small farm where a young couple had a few goats, among other livestock. After a chat and a cup of tea, they sent us on our way with some of their goat-milk yogurt.

On the deserted beach we built a driftwood fire and grilled the fish, boiled some new potatoes and drizzled them with the yogurt. We had weak herbal tea to drink, I believe.

I was a fish-eating vegetarian at the time, and not much of a gourmand. Riding 60 to 80 miles a day builds up an appetite that makes anything delicious, and my usual dinner was a can of spaghetti or (porkless) beans, a whole box of mac & cheese per person. An afternoon snack might be a quart of milk and an entire package of Peek Frean cookies.

But even now I can call up the exquisite memory of that fish, rich and smoky, the sweet potatoes and the tangy yogurt. It was one of the first great meals I remember eating, simple as it was.

(Later that night, when the wind came up, and then the rain, I learned a lasting lesson about camping on a beach, which is: tent stakes don't hold in wet sand...!)

And now, what about these "baps"? I have a vague idea about them, but with your Scottish background, perhaps you can elaborate?