Every time I let Tom go alone to the butcher shop, he comes home with too much meat – including a sweetbread. I mostly don’t have a problem with that, because I like sweetbreads too, but it always presents us with the question of how to prepare them. They’re so rich, we’re torn between trying something elaborate to do them justice, and trying to fit them into a normal everyday dinner. I wrote about an example of the first kind of dish here and the second kind here.
So when another sweetbread found its way to our house recently, I tucked it away in the freezer for a few days and then went scurrying to my cookbooks for something new to try with it. I came up with a good-looking provençal recipe in Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking.
The French always feel it’s important to blanch sweetbreads, trim off every visible speck of membrane, and press them under a weight in the refrigerator for several hours. Italians are more casual about preparing them, and I’ve had good results either way. Willan called for the whole procedure à la française, which I dutifully did with my current sweetbread – but then we didn’t wind up cooking it that evening after all, so with some trepidation I put it back into the freezer.
A few days ago I took it out and let it defrost slowly. If anything, it almost seemed to have improved from its stay in the deep freeze.
From its appearance, I couldn’t help thinking of “Donovan’s Brain.” Do you know that 1950s sci-fi/horror movie? The disembodied brain of an evil multimillionaire, kept alive in a tank by a well-meaning scientist, takes possession of its benefactor and forces him to do dastardly deeds. Here’s how that brain looked – not too much unlike my sweetbread:
But I digress. Let’s get out of the movie theater and back into the kitchen.
Willan’s Ris de Veau Moissonière is a variation on her recipe for calf’s liver done the same way. She Englishes the name as Sweetbreads in Tomato and Wine Sauce, a phrase that, oddly, ignores the major ingredient: onions – in a quantity equal in weight to the sweetbread. I was a little hesitant about that; onions with liver is a classic combination but I wasn’t sure the sweetbread would like that many of them. Only one way to find out: Try it!
Tom paid the price for his retail overindulgence by slicing the onions thinly and the sweetbread thickly. I floured the pieces of meat, browned them in lard, and removed them to a plate. Softened the great mass of onions in the same pan along with parsley, thyme, and bay leaf. Sprinkled on a little flour and cooked it briefly. Stirred in red wine, wine vinegar, tomato paste, chopped garlic, and broth. Brought it to a boil and simmered for a few minutes.
The sauce was immediately very thick. The master recipe, using liver, did not call for flouring the meat before browning it, and I think the combination of flour on both the sweetbreads and the onions was a bit too much. Happily, stirring in a little hot water brought the sauce back to a good consistency, and I returned the sweetbreads to the pan, lapped them with the sauce, heated them through, and served dinner.
The dish was very good and not at all what I had expected. Neither the onions, the tomato paste, nor the wine was a strong flavor in its own right; they’d all merged into a subtle, sophisticated medium for the tender sweetbreads. It seemed more like a restaurant preparation (in a good sense) than a home-cooking dish. I really liked this combination and want to try it with other meats. Calf’s liver, of course, is the logical choice, and I think it would also be excellent with thinly sliced pork chops.
Tom and I have often noted that Italian recipes accomplish in a short while with a combination of tomato and red wine what French cuisine achieves over a long time by reducing and enriching mother sauces. Some provençal dishes show a greater affinity to the Italian style than to the classic French. This sweetbread preparation appears to combine both approaches.