We've seen, over the past decade, celebrity chefs and television food personas bring the food of the streets and the lower classes around the world into the spotlight—a renaissance of scraps and guts and oft discarded parts that would usually be tomorrow's sausage instead of today's high-end gourmet meal. Before we even knew who Anthony Bourdain was (or even cared), one man was reviving the lesser cuts and re-establishing British food as cutting edge and innovative. And he did it all with guts and a little imagination.
In The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, Fergus Henderson explores the wonderful world of offal and forgotten traditional British foods with grace, wit and whimsy. From savory chutneys to cold lamb's brains on toast, The Whole Beast captures, in every cleverly written recipe, Henderson's love of food and its role in living a happy life.
Henderson, who was a student of architecture prior to making the leap to the culinary arts, has defined himself as a chef's chef—renowned by the top chefs of today as an innovative and inspiring agent at the vanguard of reviving offal in haute cuisine, bringing it from the peasants plate to the table of his Michelin-starred restaurant without the accompanying pretense.
The Whole Beast lives up to its title with a holistic approach to eating animals that attempts to utilize all parts and leave no tasty bits out of the fun—a concept that is being fully adopted by American chefs who aim to expand their offerings by adding terrines and charcuterie to their menus in an attempt to honor and value the animals that have given their lives to nourish ours. In many ways, this type of eating is a return to the days before the decadence of our modern Western Culture, an age where financial stress limited meat consumption to a few days a week and organ meat was a nutritional treat and not a source of repulsion.
Much like a good chef's repertoire, The Whole Beast, starts with stocks and soups, expounding on different types of stocks and their functions in the kitchen as the cornerstone of delicious meals. Dishes such as Pea and Pig's Ear Soup and British classics like Cock-a-Leekie set the tone for this book by introducing Henderson's apologetic and humorous style of writing that breaks even the most complex of recipes down to their structural components, allowing home cooks to shed their anxiety and pull off intricate dishes with aplomb.
The bulk of this cookbook is dedicated to meat, with a focus on pork, game and offal. This portion of The Whole Beast is broken up into four sections: lamb's brains and sweetbreads, meat, birds and game, and fish and shellfish. Many of the recipes feature cuts of meat that will send you to specialty markets such as: sweetbreads (thymus glands), pig trotter (pig feet), blood and varying organ meats (kidneys, tripe, and brains). Despite their daunting ingredients, most of the recipes are quite simple and yield delicious and adventurous results. For instance, Henderson's signature dish: Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad—a staple menu item at his Mecca of all things offal, London's St. John—pairs simplicity with decadence. This dish is as simple as roasting veal bones and serving them with coarse salt and the simplest of parsley salads resulting in a culinary experience that is savory and satisfying.
Chefs and home-cooks who approach offal with mild trepidation can find solace in the more traditional recipes featured in The Whole Beast. Recipes like Pot Roast Brisket and Braised Front Leg and Shoulder of Venison bring the flavors of traditional British countryside fare to your home. A portion of the book is dedicated to the art of food preservation, with tutorials on brining, making confit and other methods of allowing foods to find themselves through time and technique.
The Whole Beast isn't all innards and ears and confit; Henderson dedicates ample space to vegetable sides and sauces and pickles as well. A few of the vegetable dishes stand out despite their rather generic names—like Radishes to Accompany Roast Duck or Goose, or Turnip Bake. A book like this would not be complete without an offering of sauces and dressings to complement its meaty offerings—direct descendants of classic French and British sauces with Henderson's own twist and whimsically written recipes that turn a common emulsion into an emotional experience. St. John's Chutney and Green Sauce round out this section with an infusion of British tradition that has nearly fallen to the wayside.
Since going to London just to eat at Henderson's awe-inspiring restaurant probably isn't feasible in this economy, bringing The Whole Beast into your home is. This book truly offers something for everyone¬—adventurous meals using offal for the daring home-cook, tutorials for preservation techniques for those looking to stretch their dollar through tough times, simple sauces with user-friendly technique and delectable vegetable dishes that anyone can make and enjoy. Fergus Henderson's The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating is a great reminder of how economic climate and our food share a symbiotic relationship, and how a re-examination of our modern decadence can lead us to utilizing all parts of the animals that have sacrificed their lives for our nourishment—not only because it is respectful and practical, but nostalgically delicious and rewarding as well.
Recipe: Brawn (Headcheese)