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The Sweetest Bread

Posted by Kerith , February 17, 2010

In the Broadway musical “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown,” a bereft, famished Snoopy laments that Charlie Brown has forgotten his supper.  When Mr. Brown arrives moments later with his dog dish, Snoopy culls his deepest baritone and intones, “Behold!  This brimming bowl of meat and meal, which is brought forth to ease our hunger.”  It’s a great mock-up of the famous Italian verismo opera style.  Similar sentiments should be incanted when serenading the lowly organ meat known as “sweetbreads.”  “Lo!  This rich and tasty beast neck gland, chock full of protein and cholesterol!”  I might be more inclined to pen another stanza and further sing its praises were it not so readily available in numerous fine dining establishments near you.  Yes, sweetbreads are staging a comeback, bringing their rich, smooth deliciousness to the current food scene.  Organ meat is sexy, and organ meat is back!

Less than 5 years ago, I knew of only one San Diego restaurant serving up crispy, warm sweetbreads – Piattis in La Jolla.  A chain restaurant that once operated a branch in Yountville, it was the only game in town known to me.  We all know San Diego is known for great, temperate weather and a laid-back surfer mentality but it’s far from a food lovers lair of rapture.  But fortunately, change is in the air and in the kitchen.  Within the last 6 months, I have relished perfectly cooked sweetbreads in three different preparations at three different places.  I’ve been raving about Whisknladle’s crispy sweetbreads with brussel spouts and salty pancetta for the longest but have tasted equally satisfying bites at both Addison and Cucina Urbana.  At Addison, Chef Bradley does a crispy coated, deep fried number alongside lemony risotto.  Most recently, I was absolutely delighted to nosh on sweetbreads atop sautéed spinach at Cucina Urbana.  All three plates are terrific choices for the uninitiated sweetbread novice.  As scary as “organ meat” sounds, when well prepared, sweetbreads are easy to eat- crispy on the outside with a rich, savory, melt-in-your-mouth revelation within.  In fact, preparing sweetbreads at home is one of my loose 2010 kitchen resolutions, along with dishing up some homemade rabbit stew.  But somehow rabbit seems easier – just dredge in flour, brown and braise.  Sweetbreads are less approachable to the novice home chef.  Or so I explained to our patient and awfully indulgent Cucina Urbana waiter.  Not 10 minutes later, he returned to our table with “really simple” instructions from Chef Joe in the back.  “Chef said you can’t go wrong with this at home,” he repeated, hoping to butress my confidence.  Basically I got a pared down skeleton recipe highlighting the most important technical details of organ meat preparation.  Chef instructed me to 1) blanch in aromatics 2) peel off the membrane 3) slice into disks 4) refridgerate and weight them down to flatten ‘em out and finally 5) dredge in flour and pan sear.  Unfortunately, I am a cook and not a Chef.  I require on more detail, like exactly how thin do I slice?  How long in the fridge?  How long do I sear them?  What kind of aromatics?  If Chef says, “3 minutes and 12 seconds,” I set a stopwatch to 3 significant figures.  More information was required.

Sweetbreads are really the thymus gland, a neck organ that involutes (ie shrinks) with age in both animals and people.  In humans, the thymus is responsible for generating the T cells of our immune system and involutes after adolescence.  Older livery lacks significant thymic tissue as well, so sweetbreads come from young veal and sheep.  Veal sweetbreads are more popular in the U.S. and should be plump and firm when purchased from the butcher.  According to the table in Harold McGee’s seminal text (On Food & Cooking), sweetbreads contain two to three times the cholesterol of normal cuts of meats.  He attributes this to the smaller size of thymic cells relative to the larger skeletal muscle cells.  Thus thymic cells posses proportionately more cell membrane per unit weight, with cell membranes being comprised of fatty sterols and acids.  I guess that explains the rich, tender texture.  Sweetbreads are 12-33% protein and 3-23% fat, with 220-500 mg of cholesterol.  Good stuff.  McGee also points out that blanching (submerging in a slowly simmering liquid) washes proteins and microbes off the meat and coagulates them so they can be skimmed off.  He helpfully notes, “Blanching also moderates strong odors.”  In our house, I am guessing that sweetbreads will rank well below the perennial preschool favorites like unseasoned mac and cheese and bland, tasteless chicken nuggets. 

I consulted both The New Professional Chef, CIA, 6th ed. and On Cooking, Techniques from Expert Chefs, 2nd ed. for more detailed mise en place.  I now know that prior to cooking, sweetbreads first must be soaked overnight in cold water to remove all traces of blood.  I am hoping Chef Joe presumed I already knew that one.  That critical step kind of got lost in the game of telephone connecting his busy, restaurant kitchen to my four top table.  Next you must blanch the organ in court bouillon for 20 minutes (Ah-ha! Aromatics defined!) before removing the membrane by hand.  The CIA text provides great color photographs detailing the pressing technique.  Adjacent photos demonstrate how to bisect a kidney and deglove cow tongue of its tough, outer membrane.  This was starting to look awfully familiar to me- like autopsy pathology, except the last time I bisected a kidney it was to identify infection or tumors.  The whole sweetbreads-yourself experiment was starting to look more ick and less sweet.  But February is a good a time as ever to whack out those pesky New Year’s Resolutions, so I intend to bravely forge ahead.  We all know Julie & Julia has already been done so I will spare you my whining about how I’m pining for a book deal, too.  Instead I promise you Bruliam video footage when I prepare sweetbreads at home in the upcoming weeks.  After all, it’s a great pair with pinot noir.

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