I order sweetbreads whenever I see them on the menu - which unfortunately is quite rare. Sweetbreads are the pancreas and thymus glands of young animals - usually veal and lamb (although I've never tasted the latter). The thymus gland is said to be the superior option but I've never seen it sold on its own.
Preparing sweetbreads isn't difficult but it does take time: they need to be soaked in several changes of cold water, then, after they've been blanched in acidulated water, the membranes and veins should be removed before the sweetbreads are pressed between weights, which makes the texture firmer. After that, they can be cooked many ways, including deep-frying, pan-frying, roasting and braising. They're also sometimes used as a stuffing for ravioli and other types of pasta.
Veal sweetbreads with beurre noisette and capers (pictured)
500 grams veal sweetbreads, thawed, if frozen
About 50ml fresh lemon juice
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
About 100 grams plain (all-purpose) flour, for dredging
Oil, for pan-frying
80 grams unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tbsp capers, drained
Lemon wedges, for serving
Rinse the sweetbreads, place them in a bowl and cover them with cool water. Refrigerate for eight hours or longer, changing the water several times. Drain them, then put them in a saucepan, cover with cold water and stir in the fresh lemon juice. Place over a medium flame, bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes (depending on the size of the pieces; if they're large, cook them for longer). Drain the sweetbreads, rinse them with cold water then let them soak in a bowl of ice water.
When the sweetbreads are cold, pull off and discard the thick membranes covering the glands and remove any veins and lumps of fat, leaving intact the thin membranes holding the pieces together. Place them on a paper-towel-lined tray, cover with more paper towels, then place another tray directly on top. Weigh down the top tray with something fairly heavy - cans of soup or water-filled saucepans - but don't crush them; you just want to compress the glands, not squash them flat. Refrigerate for a few hours.
Heat the butter in a small saucepan over a low fire until it melts, then continue cooking it until it smells nutty and the milk solids at the bottom of the pan turn medium-brown (take care, because the fat will splatter). Stir in the capers then keep the mixture warm.
Put the flour in a bowl add about ?tsp salt and as much ground pepper as you like, then combine thoroughly. Cut the sweetbreads on the diagonal into pieces about 1cm thick (if they're smaller glands - about 3cm - you can leave them whole). Pour oil into a skillet to a depth of about 5mm and heat over a medium-high flame. Dredge the sweetbread pieces in the flour and pan-fry on both sides in the hot oil until they're golden brown and crisp, then drain on paper towels.
Place the sweetbreads on plates (four for a main course or two as an appetiser). Spoon the butter and capers over and around the sweetbreads, add a lemon wedge to each portion and serve immediately with side dishes and accompaniments of your choice.
Sweetbreads with mushrooms, pearl onions and Madeira wine
I ate this dish often when I lived in San Francisco; the chef of an Italian restaurant in the North Point district would serve the sweetbreads over a bed of runny polenta, which went deliciously with the rich pan sauce. If you don't like polenta, serve the sweetbreads with crusty bread.
500 grams veal sweetbreads
20 grams dried porcini
200 grams button mushrooms (use small ones, if possible)
150 grams pearl onions
1 garlic clove, halved
About 45ml olive oil
60ml Madeira wine
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
20 grams unsalted butter, chilled
Soak, blanch, peel and press the sweetbreads as in the first recipe, then cut them into two-bite pieces. Briefly rinse the porcini under cold running water then put them in a bowl and add 100ml of warm water. Let them soak for at least 15 minutes, or until soft, then drain, reserving the soaking liquid. Cut the porcini into 1cm pieces. Rinse the button mushrooms then cut them into halves or quarters, depending on the size. Bring a pan of water to the boil, add the pearl onions and simmer them for a few minutes, then drain them and peel off the skins.
Heat the olive oil in a large pan (I use a wok). Add the sweetbreads, season with salt, then saut?until the pieces are lightly seared. Stir in the porcini and button mushrooms then add the garlic and pearl onions. Saut?over a high flame for about two minutes, then stir in the Madeira wine (take care, because it might ignite). Bring to the boil then lower the heat and simmer for about a minute before adding the porcini soaking liquid. Mix the ingredients, then lower the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. The sauce should be of a light coating consistency; if needed, increase the heat and let it reduce until ready (or if the mixture is too dry, add a little water). Taste for seasonings then add pepper and more salt, if needed. Add the butter and swirl it into the ingredients. Divide the mixture between plates and serve.
Styling Nellie Ming Lee