I love sweetbreads. They’re delicate in flavor, they’re versatile enough to fry, roast, or stuff into something else, and they’re cheap. If you can find them, that is. I’m surprised that many butchers don’t carry them, and the vendors at my favorite farmer’s market only have them a couple times per year. When I can procure them, I buy a few pounds and freeze them. I can't help it. I LOVE THEM.
Sweetbreads fall into the offal category, and no, they’re not a nice way of saying “brains”. They’re typically veal, and they can be either thymus gland or pancreas. Most of the time you’re getting thymus. When I tell people sweetbreads are part of a menu, most of them go to brains. I did too—WHO TAUGHT US THIS??? It’s like we all have unconsciously absorbed this mass of false information that has no basis in reality. Like being a Tea Party voter.
But I digress.
I have two favorite sweetbread recipes. One is from the Chanterelle cookbook, and the sweetbreads are fried and tossed in a spicy, deep ginger and orange sauce – like an upscale General Tso’s chicken. The one I’m sharing with you today is from (I know you’re sick of hearing me rave about this book) Giorgio Locatelli’s Made in Italy: Food and Stories. In previous blog posts, I’ve given you Giorgio’s balls. You’ve seen the nettle risotto, and been warned about the prick if you aren’t careful with that. I’ve told you how my friend Becky came to dinner, tweaked his recipe and had a table of guests swooning over what she could do with her fish. This time, we’re going for the throat…
Sweetbreads are a bit of a pain. First, they have to be soaked for at least 24 hours, but all you have to do there is change the water a few times. Next, you have to remove the membrane from around them. Once they’ve soaked, it’s a pretty quick process. And yeah, I know it sounds gross to cook anything involving the word “membrane”. The meat sauce that goes with this dish will become your de facto meat sauce base. I promise. It’s like a quick demi-glace, and it’s incredibly rich. You can make the veal sauce and the agrodolce a day in advance if you like, and clean the sweetbreads a couple of hours ahead. Once your guests arrive, it’s a quick process to fry these up, toss them in one sauce and top with another.
The only variation I made to this recipe was to ignore the instructions for sautéed spinach, because I find it boring. I subbed in some garlicky sauteed pea vines instead. Use whatever veg you want here. The sweetbreads are the star of the show.
My copy of this book is from the UK, so the measure here are metric. I’m entering the recipe as it is given in the book, but italicizing my variations and commentary.
Animelle di Vitello in Agrodolce (Veal Sweetbreads with Sweet and Sour Sauce)
Adapted from Giorgio Locatelli
4 handfuls of spinach
20g unsalted butter
100ml extra virgin olive oil
4 large carrots
1 garlic clove
1 bay leaf
4 veal sweetbreads, each about 120g, peeled and washed
1 tablespoon plain flour
2 tablespoons sunflower or vegetable oil
8 tablespoons Veal Sauce (recipe below)
Agrodolce di capperi (recipe below)
Salt and pepper
Blanch the spinach in boiling salted water for 5 seconds, refresh under cold running water, drain and squeeze out the excess water. Put into a pan with half the butter and half the olive oil.
Blanch the whole carrots for a couple of minutes in boiling salted water drain and leave to cool naturally, then cut at an angle into slices about 1cm thick.
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees Centigrade (480 Farenheit).
Crush the garlic with the back of a knife and put into a pan with the rest of the oil, the bay leaf and the sliced carrots. Place over a very low heat, cover with a lid and gently stew for about 10-12 minutes, until the carrots are soft. Take off the heat.
If the sweetbreads are still whole, gently break them apart (They will fall naturally into pieces). Season and dust with flour. Heat a large sauté pan (that will transfer to the oven), add the sunflower or vegetable oil and put in the pieces of sweetbread. Cook until golden on all sides, turn the heat down, leave for a minute, then transfer to the oven for about 3 minutes until cooked through. When they are ready, if you press them with your finger they should be springy, like a sponge cake. Or your mom’s ass.
While the sweetbreads are cooking, put the pan containing the spinach on to the heat to warm through, and season. Then put the pan containing the carrots back on the heat to warm through.
Take the sweetbreads out of the oven and let the pan cool down slightly, put it on the hob (“What the fuck is a hob”, you ask? It’s a stove top burner. Not to be confused with a hob-knocker, which is an entirely different thing. Look that one up on urban dictionary.), pour in the sauce, and heat through. Toss the sweetbreads in the sauce to coat. Take off the heat and carefully beat in the remaining butter, taking care not to smash the sweetbreads.
Spoon the spinach into the middle of your warmed plates and arrange the carrots around. Lift out the sweetbreads and spoon on top of the spinach. Then pour the veal sauce over the top. Finish with a tablespoon of agrodolce over each plate.
Basic Sauce for Meat
Makes 750ml to 1 liter
2-3 tablespoons sunflower or vegetable oil
400g meat trimmings (chicken, veal, pork, lamb, beef, venison, duck, pigeon, partridge, your neighbor’s cat, feral children,…). Note: I didn’t have meat trimmings so I just bought a cheap cut of veal on the bone. Don’t spend a lot of money on this—it’s just to caramelize and give depth of flavor.
1 carrot, diced into roughly the same size as the meat (make sure the dice are the same size so they cook evenly)
2 garlic cloves
1 sprig of rosemary
1 bay leaf
1 shallot, diced
1 teaspoon flour
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1.5 liters good stock (chicken, veal, etc., depending on your meat,) For this dish, I used veal stock, but really anything will do. It’s flexible.
400 ml (A little more than half a bottle) Chianti or other red wine. Note that this is optional for the basic meat sauce described here, but for this veal sweetbread recipe it adds amazing depth of flavor.
Heat the pan to medium-hot, then put in the oil.
Just before it starts to smoke, put the trimmings into the pan a few at a time, making sure they all touch the bottom of the pan. Leave these to roast without touching them for 2-3 minutes, until they start to become golden underneath. Turn them until they are golden and caramelized on all sides, another 5-10 minutes.
Add the carrot, garlic and herbs, and leave to roast for another 2-3 minutes, then add the shallots and roast for another couple of minutes.
Turn down the heat, add the butter and let it foam without burning. If adding wine, add it now and let it reduce until some of the alcohol has evaporated – I let it go 10-15 minutes.
Add the flour and tomato paste, turn up the heat again, and cook for a minute or so, until the temperature of the pan has come up again.
Add the stock, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Bring to the boil, skim, turn down the heat and cook for about half an hour.
Put through a fine sieve and reduce until you have a sauce consistency. I let this baby simmer and reduce for about 2 hours until it was a thick, deep, decadent sauce
Agrodolce di Capperi (Caper Sweet and Sour Sauce)
5 tablespoons white wine vinegar
70g caster sugar
100g capers in brine, drained, washed and dried
100ml extra virgin olive oil
Make the agrodolce sauce by putting the vinegar and sugar in a small pan and letting it bubble up and reduce to a clear syrup.
Hand-blend the capers, very slowly, adding the syrup (as if making a mayonnaise), then blend in the oil (again very slowly, so that the sauce doesn’t split) until creamy. Transfer to a small pan and keep on a very low heat, without boiling, for about 15-20 minutes, until any excess liquid disappears and the sauce is very thick. Leave to cool.