I woke up in 2009 with a bit of a bad head and a desire to caffeinate. On the way into the kitchen, I stopped at the shelves and retrieved The Balthazar Cookbook, remembering it had a nice recipe for cured pork belly. But it required a day’s marinating in a spice rub, and so I started for the iMac to scout options – then stopped, remembering Fergus.
“There’s nothing like a pork belly to steady the nerves,” he wrote, he being Fergus Henderson, back from the grave. The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating offers pork belly four different ways:
1. Boiled and riding on a bed of lentils. (“Encourage your dining companions to eat the fat and all. With the rich and fatty belly you want quite dour lentils.”)
2. Brined and roasted. (The boiled version is likewise brined before cooking.)
3. In Duck Neck Terrine. (“I hope you have more luck in the United States in procuring duck necks with the skin on.”)
4. And finally smoked, for Bacon Knuckle and Pickled Cabbage, the latter getting a good ferment. (“Leave somewhere warmish for two weeks. It will produce lots of water and when you smell it, it will smell quite umpfy. This is all good.”)
His love of things pork – and I mean all things pork – is not all I admire about Fergus Henderson. Take a thing called “elevenses,” which, like a lot of things English, requires a bit of explanation but, once given, seems almost grade-school in its effort. As with elevenses – or, the tradition of staving off the pre-lunch hunger with a small snack of some sort. In Henderson’s Beyond Nose to Tail, there is a photo of a very satisfied-looking Fergus, pawing a glass of wine and contemplating a slice of cake, all in his goggle-like spectacles and second-hand cardigan. Elevenses.
Beyond Nose to Tail – a gorgeous piece of publishing that I paid way too much for and regret not one bit – is mostly a baker’s bible, the precursor Whole Beast having made off with the lion’s share of meat-cooking, -curing and -eating methods. Beyond has brilliant recipes for dense ice cream, cracking breads and thick, syrupy cakes. Nose to Tail has everything else.
Including pork belly. And a pork belly is a great excuse for another Fergus essential.
I love my brine bucket, more for what it represents than what’s actually in it, which most of the time is nothing. But the ham I cured in it left a memory that I can still taste – and hopefully the seven others who ate of it – and a success that is symbolized in the brine bucket. For the ham (actually a Boston butt), I bought a gallon pail of virgin plastic from Home Depot. For the belly, I’m employing a five-gallon squarish thing that fits better in the fridge. My dad gave it to me. It once held industrial chicken salad.
The belly came from Nam-Hai, an Asian market on Garnett Road, and cost less than a buck a pound. The brine was 2 cups sugar, 2 cups and a quarter salt, dozen or so juniper berries and peppercorns, three bay leaves. The belly will drink this up for 10 days. A lot longer than the overnight of the Balthazar belly, but this is Fergus of St. John in Clerkenwell, for whom I make concessions.
Happy new year, Fergus, wherever you are.