Cooking the 'whole beast' can be daunting task

The Baltimore Sun

I knew I was in for an adventure when I tried a dish from The Whole Beast cookbook by Fergus Henderson. Henderson is a London chef who specializes in what he calls "nose to tail" dishes. He cooks the parts of animals that, as he puts it in his book, "are often forgotten and sadly discarded in today's kitchen." Those include pig's head and tails, pigeon and duck hearts. He serves these dishes at St. John, his London restaurant.

Cookbooks written by chefs often take what I call a creative approach to recipes. The writing can be quirky and interesting, but lacking in specifics. The portions that their recipes yield are gigantic. Yet the good chefs communicate their passion. They speak in clear, believable voices, even if they neglect to tell us where to put the cheese or how to make dinner for four.

As I flipped through The Whole Beast, I got the feeling this was a man who relished delicious rural food, even if it isn't pretty or trendy. "There is a set of delights, textural and flavorsome which lie beyond the fillet," he wrote, explaining why he cooks an entire beast. He had the same waste-not, want-not approach to vegetables. For example, the best way to eat raw radishes, he said, is coat their bottoms with unsalted butter and a sprinkle of salt. Then you toss the green tops in a vinaigrette and eat them as a salad.

The book made me want to cook, but the meat dishes were daunting. For instance, cooking a ham in hay looked appealing until I saw that the ham first had to be soaked in brine for 12 days.

Then I found the recipe for roast tomatoes and crottins. It seemed approachable, even though I did not have clue what a "crottin" was. It turned out to be a type of goat cheese with a shape that resembled animal droppings. Despite the off-putting name, I ventured on.

Basically, this recipe called for roasting tomatoes in garlic and olive oil in a very hot oven, then adding the goat cheese, cooking the dish some more, then topping the tomatoes with a dressing of mint leaves flavored with lemon juice. It could be served on toast. Another appeal of this dish was that tomato season, one of the most heavenly times of the year, is fast approaching.

The end point of this recipe -- a blissful union of warm tomatoes, soft garlic and oozing cheese -- sounded enticing. But the instructions on how to get there were vague.

For instance, I had questions about the tomatoes. The recipe, to serve six people, called for using 18 to 24 vine-ripened tomatoes. That was too many for six people. I scaled things down. I cut the tomatoes back to six; I reduced the number of peeled garlic cloves from 20 to six. I settled on a yield that would feed four people.

Furthermore, I was uncertain how to handle the tomatoes. Core them? Cut them in half? Leave them whole? The chef did not say. I opted for coring.

I substituted a log of domestic goat cheese, cut into 2-ounce portions, for the authentic crottins. I wasn't sure where the cheese was supposed to go. Henderson's instructions simply told me to "nestle" it. Of the two possible nestling spots, in the baking dish or atop the tomatoes, I chose the latter. The white cheese sitting in the red tomatoes had an eye-catching look.

Equally vague were the instructions on how long the cheese should be cooked. Bake until it was "giving but not gone," the chef said. I loved the lyrical quality of that phrase even if it left me guessing about cooking time. I translated it to mean 10 more minutes in a 425-degree oven.

Served whole, the cheese-stuffed tomatoes were soft and flavorful but hard to handle. Eventually, I squashed the tomatoes, as Henderson suggested, spreading them, the cheese, the garlic and the mint on toast. The flavors were outstanding: warm tomatoes, sweet garlic, soft tangy cheese.

As happens when you try a new recipe, especially one you don't quite understand, I made this dish again. The next time, I used authentic crottin goat cheese, from France, and changed its nestling spot to alongside the tomatoes, not on top of them.

The results were similar. Both treatments produce a joyful jumble of soft, juicy vegetables.

Cooks say that to get the hang of a recipe you have to think like the person who wrote it. When I pulled the dish from the oven and saw the tomatoes swimming with the goat cheese and garlic, my mouth watered. Later, when I mopped up the last of the bits of the dish with a piece of bread, I felt Henderson would approve. It was more "stem to skin" eating than nose to tail. But there was not a drop of the dish left over.

Roast Tomatoes and Crottins

Serves 4

6 vine-ripened tomatoes, cored

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

6 cloves garlic, peeled

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

6 crottins (2-ounce portions of goat cheese, Crottin de Chavignol if available)

1 handful fresh mint leaves

juice of 1/2 lemon

6 slices of crispy toast, made by slicing bread, drizzling with olive oil and baking in oven until golden brown

Place the tomatoes in an ovenproof dish, season with salt and pepper, scatter garlic and then, in a generous fashion, splash olive oil over all.

Put into a hot, 425-degree oven for approximately 25 minutes, until the tomatoes are soft and giving. Check that the garlic is soft and cooked.

Nestle crottins either on the tomatoes or in the dish and return to the oven, cooking until they are giving but not gone; in other words, soft but not running. Remove from oven.

Slightly tear mint leaves and dress with the lemon juice and a splash of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Place in a clump on top of the tomatoes and crottins and serve with crispy toast.

Squish the tomato, garlic, crottin and mint onto toast, scoop up some of the garlicky, tomatoey oil and eat.

Adapted from "The Whole Beast" by Fergus Henderson

Per serving: 747 calories, 23 grams protein, 61 grams fat, 22 grams saturated fat, 29 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber, 68 milligrams cholesterol, 644 milligrams sodium

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