Sweet and sour sweetbreads
In a stroke of pure marketing genius for the meat industry, someone developed the name “sweetbreads” to apply to what would otherwise stay in the drab collective of offal/organ meat. The terms “organ meat” or “offal” rarely get a positive response from the general public, in much the same way “reclaimed meat” wouldn’t appeal to the masses. However, if we serve these products in nugget form and accompanied by sweet dipping sauce, they can be absolutely delicious. Perhaps we should just reference them as the French do: ris de veau. The French always manage to make food sound sexy.
Sweetbreads are the glands from immature animals and are found commercially in sheep, pigs and cows. The thymus gland, which has a key role in their development, also becomes small and a bit more gnarly as the animal ages. It’s still edible but less delicious than it once was.
With most ingredients I eventually come to prepare them in a different way as I become more confident with them, cooking them a little more gently or really finessing the process. With the likes of offal it can be a high risk to start playing around with these things. I have eaten some truly disgusting versions of sweetbreads, some of which have been by my own hand. This is the first way I learnt to cook them and it is the method I adopt nine times out of 10 whenever I can get my hands on exceptional product.
Crumbing and deep-frying sweetbreads after this initial poaching also works really well but I find these methods lack the depth of pan-frying. Of course, anything that’s fried in 200 grams of butter is going to taste delicious, but this technique with the foaming brown butter and hard herbs and garlic also works really well with fish.
A great way to finish is to add a small handful of capers and a squeeze of lemon at the end. Then some of the cooking liquid can be drizzled over the sweetbreads to serve.
Serves 4 as dinner with a salad or 6 as a snack
Time: 3 hours preparation + 1 hour cooking
- 1 litre milk
- 3 cloves garlic
- 6 black peppercorns
- 6 bay leaves
- 1kg calf sweetbreads
- 2 brown onions
- 30g butter
- 90ml olive oil
- 200ml tamarind
- 200ml honey
- 100ml light soy sauce
- white pepper
- flour for dusting
- salt and pepper
- 1 bunch thyme
- 150g butter
- sherry vinegar or lemon juice (optional)
- capers (optional)
- Bring one litre of water and the milk to the boil with two cloves of garlic, the peppercorns and the bay leaves. Drop the sweetbreads into the liquid and put back on the heat for one minute before removing from the hotplate and letting the pot cool down.
- Once the liquid has cooled to just above room temperature, or about 50ºC (about 20 minutes), remove the sweetbreads with a slotted spoon and place them “top” – the side with the least crevices and smoothest surface – down on a tray. Put a weight of about 800 grams in a tray and place it on the sweetbreads to evenly flatten the top of them as they cool. This will create an even cooking surface for their second step. Place the sweetbreads in the fridge for about two hours.
- To make the sweet and sour sauce, slice the onions and sweat them off in a pot with the butter. Once they have softened completely, and are caramelised a little, add 30 millilitres of the olive oil, the tamarind, honey, soy sauce and white pepper, then bring to the boil. Remove from the heat and let cool, then liquefy in a blender.
- Season the flour with salt and pepper and set aside in a tray.
- Remove the sweetbreads from the fridge and prepare them by peeling away the excess fat, but not all of it, and the skin that covers the top of the gland. Place them into the tray of seasoned flour.
- Place a heavy-based pan onto a medium-high heat. Add the remaining oil, then place the sweetbreads top-side down in the pan. Cook on medium-high for one minute before turning the heat up and adding half of the butter together with the thyme and the remaining clove of garlic. Swirl the pan around without agitating the sweetbreads, as this helps them get a crust. Bring the butter to a deep brown before removing the pan from the heat. Flip each little nugget over, then add the rest of the butter. At this point it is also nice (but not necessary) to deglaze the pan with a little sherry vinegar or lemon juice.
- Using a slotted spoon, scoop each nugget onto paper towel to remove any excess oil, then plate into a small bowl with a spoonful of the sweet and sour sauce and capers.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2022 as "Gland of opportunity".
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