I have a feeling that if you asked a child what sweetbreads are, and then asked a chef, you’d get wildly varying answers. The word “sweetbread” first popped up in the 1500s, and it’s hard to tell what part of the animal they were referring to: historians generally agree that it’s likely the thymus gland or pancreas. Today, the word is often used for many small organs, from the sublingual gland to (gasp!) the testicle. Common sense assumes that these glands were eaten regularly throughout history, and was probably highly sought after due to their rarity (in relation to the rest of the food you get from an animal) and delicacy.
When my friends at US Wellness Meats offered to send me some of their lamb sweetbreads to try, I jumped at the opportunity; I hadn’t made them at home before, and I was up for a challenge. It turns out that they are relatively simple to make, they just take a little finesse and patience. To fill out the dish, I wanted to add something hearty and filling (cauliflower purée), something sweet (a pear reduction sauce), and a firm texture to make sure the dish didn’t turn out to “mushy” and to add a sharper taste to everything (spring greens tossed in balsamic vinaigrette). It all turned out beautifully.
While spending a few days in Austin last month, I basically dove head-first into Texas barbecue: the pickles, the vinegar-based cole slaw, and man, the brisket! I loved how a dry, blackened crust over their barbecued meats isn’t a bad thing, and how sauce is added according to individual taste, after plating. Even better, the barbecued meats are sold by the quarter pound, so each person gets to choose how much they want to eat. If that’s not the most American way of eating ever, I don’t know what is! These are all concepts that are relatively uncommon in our neck of the woods here in Maryland, so I decided to try my hand at some Texas-style barbecued beef the other day.
When choosing a meat to try, I decided to go the easy route with some boneless short ribs: they are a great size, and fatty enough that I was sure I didn’t need to worry about them drying out while cooking. Turns out I made a great choice – the short ribs were perfectly moist and tasty, and a great change of pace from our typical method of cooking short ribs (braising).
Takuan is a Japanese dish of fermented daikon radish. It is a form of Tsukemono (Japanese pickled veggies), which are served as side dishes or snacks, and are even part of the Japanese tea ceremony. Takuan in particular is often served at the end of meal to help digestion. The name “Takuan” is often attributed to Takuan Soho, a 17th century Zen Buddhist figure and the creative basis for the character Dakuan from the anime film Ninja Scroll. Korean cuisine has a similar pickled daikon radish dish, called Danmuji (단무지).
The daikon radish itself made its way to Japan from China about 2,000 years ago. Today, more land in Japan is used to grow daikon than any other vegetable. Takuan sold in many stores today is dyed yellow with food coloring; I was able to get a similar color by using a tiny bit of turmeric while pickling the radishes.
NOTE: An updated version of this recipe appears in my cookbook, The Ancestral Table.
Kabees El Lift is a popular Lebanese dish, often served as a lighter side to heavy meat dishes. The dish sports a vibrant pink color, which is made by adding beets to the turnips as they ferment. Fermented foods are great for adding natural probiotics into your diet. And, as Paul Jaminet points out, there is evidence of fermented foods like kimchi helping against autoimmune diseases and allergies. Plus they’re tasty.
I’m not sure how long this dish has been around, but I do know that turnips have been around for a long, long time; the Romans talked about them, and some of their original names were in Greek, which suggests they were eaten in Ancient Greece. Beets have been around just as long, although early forms were only the beet greens, and the bulbous root was developed/cultivated later.
One of our favorite occasional indulgences is Chinese dim sum, and one of my favorite dim sum dishes is spare ribs with black beans. In Asia, black beans (douchi) aren’t the same black beans you get at Chipotle; they’re actually a fermented and salted version of soy beans. This recipe is basically my take on this dish but without the beans.
Part of this dish’s unique taste is the combination of sweet and salty with a subtle fermented twinge – in order to pull this signature fermented taste off, I added dashes of oyster sauce and fish sauce, and it came out beautifully.