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Sweetbreads!

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Tania's parents love these things, always order them when we're at a French restaurant, and now they've gotten me hooked. Never had tried to cook'em, though, until pa-in-law ordered some from a source I'd found for him, and told me if I came over he'd give me some. Well, "some" was ONE, but as it was the size of a chicken breast I figured it'd do for two of us. After consulting two of my favorite traditional French chefs, Escoffier and Louis Diat - that last in his capacity as author of Gourmet magazine's old (1950-something) Basic French Cookbook - I decided to stick with Louis, as he'd written his directions deliberately for someone who might not know a sweetbread from a fire hydrant.

The preliminaries are simple, not labor-intensive but time-consuming. I was a little worried as he cautioned that these things are highly perishable, and due to all kinds of circumstances we weren't going to be able to eat this before Monday night. But I did the soaking and blanching right away, the second simmering Sunday morning, and the final cooking yesterday afternoon and evening, and it was one fine, fine dish. It's a sort of synthesis of several recipes, plus some notions of my own.

SWEETBREADS AU GRATIN (serves two or three)

1 big or 2 smaller sweetbreads
salt

Soak sweetbread(s) in cold water for several hours, changing it every hour or so. Then put in a pan with enough cold salted water to cover, and bring it slowly to the boil. Simmer for 5 minutes, then remove and place into cold water. Remove, drain and dry, then remove any covering membrane and whatever connective tissue you can. Wrap in a clean dish towel, set on a plate, then set another plate plus a weight (or a small stack of plates) on top to flatten it. Refrigerate overnight. (If the interval before the next step will be longer than that, take out and unwrap the unwrapped sweetbread(s) and put into a zip-lock bag or other container and refrigerate.)

vegetable broth (you could use chicken or veal stock as well)

1 cup sliced mushrooms
1 cup diced cooked chicken
butter (and olive oil, if you want) for sautéeing
salt, pepper, cayenne

Cover the sweetbread(s) with the broth in a pan. Bring to the boil, then simmer gently for 20 minutes. Remove, dry well. When cool enough to handle cut into large dice - about 3/4" chunks. Heat sauté pan and add butter, or olive oil and butter, and when that's good and hot sauté the mushrooms, seasoning well with salt, freshly-ground pepper and a good dash of cayenne. Remove to a bowl with the diced chicken. Do not wipe out the pan, but add more butter (or butter/oil) and sauté the sweetbread chunks, turning over gently so as not to break them up, and seasoning them similarly to the mushrooms. When they are just getting brown around the edges, scoop them out into the bowl with the chicken and mushrooms.

2 Tbs. butter
2 Tbs. flour
1 1/2 cups hot milk
salt/pepper to taste
1/4 cup heavy cream

6 oz. angel hair pasta (6 "nests", if using that kind - highly recommended)

Buttered panko crumbs, with or without grated cheese

Preheat the oven to 350º. Cook the angel hair in salted water just to the al dente state, then drain. Make a white sauce with the butter, flour and milk. Stir and cook over very low heat for 15-20 minutes, until thick and very smooth. Check the seasoning, then stir in the heavy cream. Stir this into the meat and mushroom mixture. Grease a gratin dish of the right size to accommodate everything, and spread the pasta evenly over the bottom. Spread the creamed mixture evenly over this, and top with a nice coating of crumbs. Set in the middle of the oven until good and hot, finishing up if you like with a few minutes under the broiler element, just enough to brown the top lightly. Serve with a blanched and buttered vegetable, such as young green beans or baby broccolini, or a simple salad. A slightly chilled Beaujolais or a crisp rosé would be good.

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  1. I'm intrigued! What's your sweetbread source?

    7 Replies
    1. re: Carb Lover

      Harris Ranch is about the only meat house that still supplies these on the West Coast, according to the meat man at How's Market in San Marino. I know that even our little neighborhood grocery in Nashville could special-order them - I'd say if you have a market with a good meat department, you should ask there. I think I could have gotten them ordered through Bristol Farms or Gelson's, but Pops buys most of his meat at How's anyway, so I just asked there. If you're in this area, the manager's name is John, and he does his Harris Ranch orders on Fridays.

      These things are really cheap, too, as offal tends to be - $1.49/lb was the price on the container we got. This is the big throat thymus, not the smaller "heart" gland, which I imagine is probably reserved for the restaurant trade, so it's not as tidy and it does have a lot of connective tissue. Soaked, blanched and pre-cooked, though, it's not hard to deal with. I road-tested mine by simply slicing and sautéeing the chunks that came loose in the cleaning process after I'd blanched it, and that made a very nice little snack! You really don't need to get as elaborate as I did - you could just slice it up, season it pretty well and sautée it in butter after doing the same with some mushrooms, as I did, and then just serve that. I think that's how Pops prepared his. It's just that I saw Diat's recipe for Ris de Veau à la Crème and got so excited I simply had to do a version of that...like I *NEED* the calories!

      1. re: Will Owen

        Thanks for the info! I'm terrified but excited to try cooking them at home one day...

        1. re: Will Owen

          The big gland in the throat is the thyROID. The thymus is always right over the heart (clinging to the top side of heart). The size differences are, as mentioned below,usually due to difference in species (veal vs lamb) or age (the younger, the bigger).

          However, I've found a lot of recipes online that refer to sweetbreads as meaning the pancreas - which is much larger than the thymus (well, it is in humans, and I've heard it is in some animals) which I have not ever eaten and sortof can't imagine eating. If anyone knows more about pancreas sweetbreads I'd be interested to learn about those.

          1. re: Will Owen

            I've been hired to test recipes for a cookbook, and one of the dishes is a "sweetbread beignet"—meaning the sweetbreads are diced, dipped in batter, and deep-fried (of course the chef has to call this a "beignet," but whatever). It rather confusingly asks you to "sear" (by which I assume chef means soak) it in a salty milk brine for 1 1/2 hours, but that's all the preparation it gets before the batter frying. Also it doesn't specify type of sweetbreads. Do you think this will be basically okay? There's no pressing or long simmering or anything. Thanks for your help!

            1. re: Liana Krissoff

              For recipe testing purposes I would definitely use veal sweetbreads since they are most common and probably what the chef was using. As for simmering and weighting, it is my understanding that this makes the sweetbreads easier to slice and more attractive to plate. Since neither factor is an issue in your recipe, I wouldn't worry about it.

              1. re: JoanN

                JoanN, thanks for this info. Had purchased sweetbreads, testicles and hearts from a lamb at the farmers market and wanted to fry it all up last night, only I didn't have time to press the sweetbreads. Your comment gave me the confidence to forgo the pressing and just soak them in salted milk for around 2 hours.
                The testicles were okay, the heart was tough but good, and the sweetbreads were fairly good. Husband refused to eat testicles, of course.

                 
                 
                1. re: xox

                  Here's what I did last night.

                  http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/921865

                  Because all the threads were pretty old, I started this new one. Fantastic.

        2. Wow, does that sound delicious. You've motivated me to make this as my first attempt at cooking sweetbreads at home - and I have the perfect bottle of rosé too. Thanks!

          1. What kind of critter did these come from? Beef? Lamb? The reason I ask is that I'm getting a whole lamb next month from a nearby organic farm. I had planned on asking for the kidneys when the butchering gets done but should I get the sweetbreads too?

            7 Replies
            1. re: TNExplorer

              These were veal (and NO, I don't want to go there!), but lamb sweetbreads are supposed to be the best, though much smaller. If they're given to you intact, there will probably be two glands connected by a gristly tube. You will need to remove and discard that, then proceed with the soaking, blanching and cleaning as I outlined it. This should be done ASAP, since sweetbreads are very perishable even under refrigeration, but after they've been blanched they'll keep for a few days before you cook them. Larousse Gastronomique says that lamb sweetbreads are used mainly as garnishes (we're talking trad French Haute Cuisine here), but that any calf-sweetbread recipe can be used, including simply frying in butter, which sounds like about the best method to me.

              For the record, these glands are present only in very young animals - they disappear completely by the time the critters become adults. So don't let anyone sell you any bull sweetbreads!

              1. re: Will Owen

                Really? Sweetbreads are the thymus gland. I thought we all held onto them. When I had bronchitis, my doctor prescribed "bovine thymus extract," and it fixed me right up.

                1. re: pitterpatter

                  Will was told correctly, but you're not entirely wrong, Pitter-
                  The Thymus glands shrink as the animal matures- if you were butchering an adult animal, you could find them, but you'd be more a surgeon than a butcher!

                  I haven't had sweetbreads in quite some time... hmmmm...

                  1. re: lunchbox

                    Is this really true? I love sweetbreads in restaurants and want to make them at home, since they seem simple to prepare and cost a fortune at the restaurant.

                    I see them regularly in the stores here (I live in a largely Hispanic area), but they are always labeled "beef sweetbreads." Since I worry that they will be tough or not tasty (or bad tasting), I haven't bought them. And I checked every (high end) source I could find in this city for "veal sweetbreads" and no luck.

                    They are quite large, too: like a chicken breast. Maybe it's time to suck it up an give it a shot. But if anyone has a solid word of recommendation or advice, I'd tremendously appreciate it.

                    1. re: renz

                      I love sweetbreads and if they are on the menu I will order them. Last time i had them was at lily's in Louisville. They were a 1st. course special produced by one of their Johnson and Wales intern. Served up in a crepe with a magical sauce. I a not a lazy cook but did attempt to recreate the dis and have since decided to lt the pros prepare the sweetbreads.

                      BTW, depending on age and animal the swetbreads can be they thymus but can also be produced from the pancreas. You can also get sweetbreads from pork and well as baby beef or lamb. Pork sweetbreads tend to be stronger in flavor and lack some delicacy. When buying them look for very white sweetbreads as the animal ages they get redder and less delicate.

                      1. re: renz

                        Either "beef sweetbreads" means its beef as opposed to lamb... or you're looking at a pancreas. You should ask them which organ it is; if its thymus it has to be from a young animal.

                        1. re: renz

                          In the hispanic culture sweetbreads (mollejas de res) are usually found further south, towards the border of Texas for example. They are classified as beef and are usually cooked by pan-frying or grilled. The flavor is distinct, unusual and very good by my standards. My mother would braise them while we were at church so that they were ready when we got home from service. They have a nutty, mellow, flavor that taste unlike any other part of the cow (or anything else for that matter).

                          I braise and grill sweetbreads as grilling is a little tricky since the window between undercooked charred is very small.

                          I wish you luck and recommend you at least try them as exploration is one of the truest forms creation.

                          Bonne Chance