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.
for the sweetbreads:
1 lb lamb sweetbreads
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/3 cup coconut flour
1/2 tsp each salt, pepper, paprika
4 tbsp duck fat, lard, or ghee
for the apple/pear reduction sauce:
1 cup apple cider
2 golden pears, diced (seeds removed)
1 dash each ground cinnamon and nutmeg
for everything else:
1 batch cauliflower purée
2 large handfuls spring greens
1 tsp balsamic vinaigrette
1/4 tsp fresh cracked pepper
Gently rinse the sweetbreads, then soak in cold water for an hour, changing the water after 30 minutes.
As the sweetbreads soak, let’s get your apple/pear sauce ready. Dice your pears and remove the seeds, then combine the cider, pear, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a small pot.
Bring to a boil then reduce the heat to low, and simmer for one hour.
After an hour, the pears will be pretty soft and mushy. Using a whisk or an immersion blender, blend the sauce until it’s smooth. Near the end of this recipe you’ll want to increase the heat to medium to reduce and thicken the sauce, but I’ll remind you about it when the time is right.
Meanwhile, your sweetbreads are ready for some action. Fill a pot with water (about 2 quarts), add the vinegar, and bring to a boil. Add the sweetbreads, then immediately reduce the heat to low – let the sweetbreads sit in the hot water for six minutes (it probably won’t start simmering in that amount of time), then drain.
Immediately drop the sweetbreads in ice water and let them cool for five minutes.
Once the sweetbreads are cool, you’ll want to trim them of any fat, peel off any membrane you find, and slice into smaller pieces. In general, I recommend slicing them into pieces that are no larger than two bites – anything bigger than that is somewhat unappealing.
Lastly, mix your coconut flour with the salt, pepper, and paprika, then dust the sweetbreads with the flour. Sauté in your fat of choice (I used duck fat) until golden brown and crispy, about three minutes per side. Be sure to sauté them in batches, and put the cooked sweetbreads on some paper towels to drain, and keep them somewhere warm (an unused oven will do the trick).
While sautéing the sweetbreads, it’s also a good time to start reducing your apple/pear sauce – to do so, simply increase the heat to medium and keep an eye on it – you want it to reduce by about half, and get to the consistency of applesauce. Should only take a few minutes. Once it’s there, turn the heat back down to low.
Once the sweetbreads are ready, toss your spring greens with the vinaigrette and crushed black pepper and set aside.
To serve, spoon some warm cauliflower purée onto a plate, add some greens, then the sweetbreads, and finally spoon some apple/pear sauce on top. Serve immediately.