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Sweetbreads

Let’s start here: Sweetbreads are not testicles.  I don’t know where that impression came from but I do know that a lot of people get that silly grin or shocked expression when they see them on menus.  They actually are either the thymus gland or pancreas from veal and lambs and they’re quite tasty.

Before meat production was separated from milk production baby animals were slaughtered in the spring, not long after they were born, so that their mothers’ milk could be diverted into fresh consumption or–more likely before refrigeration was widespread–into cheese production.  For this reason veal, lamb and the sweetbreads by-products are traditionally associated with spring but modern agricultural has cracked Mother Nature’s code and we can eat tasty young animals all year long.  Not sure how I feel about this but if they’re going to kill the baby cows (and sheep) for the tenderloin someone has to eat the sweetbreads, right?

The mixed bag of various cuts of sweetbreads you get

They are a bit more difficult to find than some other offal like liver and kidneys, I admit.  Far from every grocery store stocks them but your butcher should be able to help and I did find a package at the new Longo’s in Maple Leaf Square downtown.

My inspiration for cooking sweetbreads came from the great ones I’ve had at the Black Hoof and as Grant van Gameren details on his blog there is quite a process involved in preparing them.  They get soaked in several changes of water; spend the night in milk; three hours in brine (Grant doesn’t say how strong his is so I used a 4 – 5% brine); vac-packed and cooked sous vide for thirty minutes; pressed between two sheet pans under weight; peeled, filleted and deveined; dusted with flour and then seared.  Seems like a lot of work but many of the steps don’t require more effort than keeping the sweetbreads in the bowl while you drain a particular liquid that they have been soaking in.  Also, they are glands so it pays to spend some effort removing blood and other liquids that might cause off flavours.

I don’t have a vacuum sealer or an immersion circulator so I replicated their effect by wrapping the lobes as tightly as possible in plastic wrap and poaching them in water held at the lowest temperature I could manage on the stove top.  I crisped the exteriors in a very well heated cast iron skillet with some butter melted in it in the wood oven.

Browned in the wood oven

At the Hoof on the few occasions when I’ve had Grant’s sweetbreads they’ve been smoked and fried and served with a Frank’s-type hot sauce but in a carefully plated style that epitomises the high-low ethos.  Seeing as I was already lifting Grant’s process for prepping the sweetbreads I decided that copying his idea of serving this traditionally pretty fancy-pants ingredient with casual flavours was in order.

Mushrooms, capers, and sweetbreads are a great combination...especially on pizza

On their own they have a mild flavour, nicely crisped exterior, and a really cool texture: Soft and yielding but with just enough meatiness that they aren’t unpleasantly mushy.  With gravy on fries they are quite nice and amped up the meatiness and luxury of this homemade poutine.  The ne plus ultra of trashy sweetbread service is on pizza, though.  With cremini mushrooms, fior di latte mozzarella, and (best of all) capers they found a weird sort of sweet spot where their subtle flavour was highlighted by the contrasting sharpness from the capers.

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