“An ox tongue in brine […] or a bucket of cabbage salting in the corner of your kitchen, what could be more reassuring?” says Fergus Henderson, author of The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating. My new culinary grail is a celebration of all those animal bits that are so often overlooked in the western kitchen like tripe, ears, feet, tongue, and brains. Seeing as unusual cuts of meat have been on my mind lately and since they are so conveniently sold at my local grocery store (and my new best friend the butcher’s place), this book came along at a time in my life when there were too many trotters and not enough recipes for them.
I never read recipes. This has gotten me into a lot of trouble on occasion. For instance, when halfway through making dinner, I get to the part of the recipe that says, “chill overnight.” Or when I’m canning zucchini and see the words “mix” and “rest for ten hours,” I assume, foolishly, that the recipe means mix all the ingredients and not just the zucchini and salt, at which point I must cancel dinner with my friends to make zucchini relish out of a bowl of sloppy zucchini mess. Even when I read through my food magazines, I read the headnotes to recipes but leave the recipe to skim only if I end up cooking the dish. Reading recipes seems so boring.
But not with Fergus.
With Fergus, each recipe is lovingly related, as if we were old friends cooking side by side in a small, stone kitchen somewhere in the English countryside. For example, in his recipe for Saddle of Rabbit, he writes: “Serve the rolls with a salad that captures the spirit of the garden, made up from, for example, scallions, baby carrots, radishes, peas, fava beans (if in season), rocket (arugula), and chopped parsley (and a subliminal caper if you feel so inclined—I do!). dress with Vinaigrette and eat with the succulent rabbit.”
This excerpt also happens to capture the other thing I love about Fergus, namely the lack of prescription in his recipes. For Fergus, there are no absolutes. Cooking is about taste and feeling and improvisation. In a recipe for Salt Cod, Potato, and Tomato, he asks you to cook potatoes, tomatoes, and garlic until they’re “ready.” Or in this recipe for Stake, Capers, and Bread: “Add the lemon juice, allow it to sizzle and turn brown, and add the capers. At the last minute add the parsley and straightaway pour over the fish.” There’s something refreshing about a recipe that doesn’t rely on minutes, but on the senses. And learning to rely on yourself rather than a “rule” in a book is what turns a competent cook into an intuitive one.
My first foray into The Whole Beast was a recipe for Boiled Belly and Lentils, whose headnote reads: “This dish celebrates the not quite meat, not quite fat, quality of pork belly. There’s nothing like a pork belly to steady the nerves.” The recipe calls for brining a slab of pork belly for ten days, then cooking it slowly over low heat in a broth of vegetables and pepper and serving it with garlickly lentils.
Ten days is a long time to prepare for a dish. It’s a long time to be unsure about whether or not you’ve brined something correctly – whether the piece of pork belly you got from your local butcher (the store is called “Meats” with Bushwick’s usual candor) is even good – and whether it’s going to matter that you couldn’t find juniper berries and caster sugar. (The story with the caster sugar: In the ingredients list, Fergus calls for “2 cups superfine (caster) sugar (many suggest brown sugar, but not me),” so I figured that the mere mention of the possibility of using brown sugar was really his backhanded way of saying, “If you must, you can use brown sugar,” which I proceeded to do.)
For ten days, as I prepared other dinners, I had my brining pork belly in my mind. Every time I opened the fridge, I wondered what magic was happening in that lidded Tupperware. And on the tenth day, I rinsed the residual salt from my brined belly and put it in a pot to cook. A beatific moment to be sure.
Nothing was quite so nice as to slice up chunks of pork belly, the salty, rich meat complimented by fat so tender it absolutely melted in my mouth. Of my own volition, I would never have eaten the fat, but Fergus, dear Fergus said, “Encourage your dining companions to eat the fat and all.” And I thank him for that, because I would have missed a most amazing thing. Pork belly fat doesn’t taste like other fat, which can be chewy and leave a behind terrible residue. Brined pork belly fat, especially with a spoonful of staid lentils, is soft and flavorful and wonderful to eat.
Even after cutting the recipe in half, I still had belly and lentils for a few days afterward, but it’s just one of those things that keeps getting better with time. I guess, when food sits in brine for ten days, it learns patience. It learns to not reveal its secrets too soon, to wait until its “ready.”
What’s next for me and Fergus? Bone marrow? Blood cakes? I don’t know what it will be, but I think I’ll know when the time is right.
Boiled Belly and Lentils (adapted from The Whole Beast)
Serves 2 (with lentils left over for days)
Fergus has this to say about pork belly: “Pork belly is a wonderful thing. It’s onomatopoeic, belly is like it sounds – reassuring, steadying, and splendid to cook due to its fatty nature. It’s not a cut of meat to rush; with that, a certain calm is imbued in the belly.” I’m not sure how verbatim I can copy this recipe, but I’ll try to leave as much Fergus in there as I can. Quantities are adjusted to the amounts I used and I’ve mentioned some of my techniques. But I think Fergus would be ok with a little improvisation.
1 cup brown sugar
1 ¼ cups coarse sea salt
8 black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
2 quarts of water (enough to cover the belly)
The Boiled Belly
2 lb piece of pork belly with skin and bones
1 carrot, peeled
1 onion, peeled and stuck with 8 cloves
1 leek, cleaned
1 stalk celery
1 head garlic, skin on
dried thyme and rosemary
Extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, peeled and chopped into thin slices
1 leek, cleaned and chopped into thin slices
5 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 pound lentils
bundle of thyme and parsley
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
handful of chopped curly parsley
Combine all the brine ingredients in a pot and bring to a boil so the sugar and salt melt. Decant into your brining pot (made of a non-corrodible material – I used a large Tupperware container with a lid, Fergus recommends a bucket) and cool. When cold, add meat and leave it in the fridge for “a nice 10 days.”
Remove and rinse your meat. Place the pork belly and all other ingredients in a pan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, skim (if any fat rises to the surface), reduce to a gentle simmer with the water barely moving, and cook for three and a half hours, “until the flesh is soft and giving, but not collapsing.”
While your belly is cooking, start on the lentils. Cover the bottom of a large pan with olive oil and sweat the chopped vegetables. When they have just started to soften, but not color, add the lentils and stir for a few minutes to coat. Cover with water and “nestle in the thyme and parsley bundle.” Reduce the heat to low and stir infrequently. “You want the lentils soft but not squidgy, so that they have reserved their lentil integrity, but are not still individual hard nuts.” The cook time should be about forty minutes – add more water if they start to dry out but are not done.
“Now season, which, particularly with lentils, is a very exciting moment. It is amazing what simple salt and pepper do to the flavor of lentils – they make lentils of them.” Stir in chopped parsley and a splash of olive oil just before serving, which will “give a shine to your lentils, as they can veer to the dull side.”
Remove the pork belly from the water, slice, and serve with lentils. “Encourage your dining companions to eat the fat and all. With the rich and fatty belly you want quite dour lentils.”