Thursday, July 06, 2006

Eating. sweetbreads.

I am not sure when I first ate sweetbreads but I am quite certain that it was at a restaurant called Reiner's, most likely in the early 1990's (it is now called Geneva, but I have not been there since the change). It would be another fifteen years before offal became trendy and things like sweetbreads, kidneys, cheeks, and other parts of animals not normally considered a delicacy (at least not in America) began showing up regularly on menus and in magazine articles. Later the sweetbreads would disappear off the menu (this is still long before they were trendy and therefore I rather think we were the only customers who ever ordered them), but you could ask for the chef to make them for you.

Sweetbreads, for the uninitiated, are the thymus gland and pancreas. I have no idea who thought that these two organs were similar enough in, er, texture and flavor to group together in a dish, but I raise my glass to him. I always think of Hannibal Lecter when I eat them, because (in the book, at least), he murmurs something about how he ate the sweetbreads of a census-taker (or some other hapless fool who crossed his path) with a nice Amarone. Or some other Italian wine I can't remember. (The movie's line about liver and Chianti, of course, is more famous, but personally I prefer the book's version).

At Reiner's the sweetbreads were dusted in flour and fried whole, served with a little salad of bitter lettuces (I think) and drizzled with a gastrique. The lightly acidic sauce beautifully contrasted with the crunch of the exterior, the soft, faintly chewy interior, the rich flavor of the meat. It was a perfectly balanced dish. Much later I would attempt my own version. You could buy sweetbreads, frozen, at Whole Foods. They had to be soaked in water for a day or two to remove the transparent outer membrane, which slipped off easily. The trick is to fry them just until a crisp crust forms, but not so long the interior overcooks and becomes tough. I would swirl a little wine in the pan juices, scraping up the fond that had stuck to the bottom of the pan, pour the sauce over the nuggets of sweetbreads.

At a tapas bar in Spain and at the restaurant Lark here in Seattle, I had lamb sweetbreads that had been diced and sautéed, all slippery texture and tender meat, the gentle flavor of lamb underscored by that unique tang of...well, organ meat. But on the whole I prefer my sweetbreads lightly fried, with a crust that shatters under my fork, revealing the pale flesh within. Last night at Lola I had such a dish, perfectly crusted sweetbreads, crisp and creamy all at once. Magic.

No comments: