Trying This At Home

Tonight, we had another cooking adventure. And I'm really not sure how I feel about this one.

Have you ever heard of sweetbreads? If you have, and you haven't eaten them, you're in one of two camps--either you're intrigued, or you're totally disgusted.

For those of you who don't know, sweetbreads are organ meat. But not just any organ meat. This is the thymus or pancreas of a calf. And we decided (why did we decide this??) that we wanted to try cooking and eating some.

This is our story.

Note: Readers who are squeamish about things like raw meat, weird smells, or eating young animals should probably just skip this whole thing and pretend I never wrote it.

We picked some up at the butcher, absolutely on impulse. They sat in the fridge for a day or so, before we ventured into the totally unknown territory of cooking those suckers up.

Imagine a cauliflower. Only that cauliflower is made of some vaguely meat-like thing that isn't exactly meat but isn't anything else. Yep. It's as gross as it sounds, but we were not going to be deterred. In spite of having no idea what they were supposed to look or taste like, we sallied forth boldly, consulting The Joy of Cooking every few seconds to be sure we weren't about to somehow kill or poison ourselves. (Note: Sweetbread is not poisonous, but we were scared. It is almost never that we encounter a totally unknown quantity in the food world, and I generally reserve "unknown" for the same mental category as "sea urchin," i.e. terrifying).

Mrs. Joy instructed us that sweetbread must first be soaked in cold water for an hour or so to remove any lingering blood. Sure enough, this stuff oozed pinkish goo that turned the water into a syrupy goop oddly reminiscent of Valentine's Day. We changed the water a few times, just to be sure. Even so, after an hour of soaking it still retained a vague smell of something indefinable, as if the bloody smell of raw beef had been combined with the scent of an innocent child's nightmares.

Next, we boiled the stuff for five minutes, where it changed to a grayish mass of protuberances that made me think of nothing so much as aliens. Not to be deterred, we pushed bravely ahead to the next step. Any time a cookbook tells you to remove "cartilage, connective tissue, membranes, and tubes" from something you intend to eat... beware, dear readers. Beware.

With no idea of what we were doing or what to look for, we dug in. Literally. We just grabbed handfuls of the stuff and started pulling it apart into small pieces (as recommended), peeling off what membranes we could identify and hoping that we weren't leaving things behind that would later make us sorry.

Eventually we gave it up, hoping that we'd done a good enough job, and we pressed on to the next step--poaching.

Yes, this stuff is so finicky--tough? dangerous? I have no idea what the reasons are--that it must be soaked, blanched, stripped, and then poached before you can actually cook it. But we had already decided that we were in it for the long haul. With grim determination, we heated up yet another pot of water and commenced poaching.

This was probably the most pleasant part of the whole experience, because our actual dinner was ready and we took a 25-minute break to watch an episode of Man vs. Food and laugh at poor Adam's attempts to eat some absurdly spicy wings at some restaurant or other. That man suffers so beautifully for comedy.

The beeping of the stovetop timer tore us away from the tv and we timidly crept back into the kitchen to gaze upon the grayish bits of meat-like stuff that floated and bobbed in the pot. While the butter for sauteeing heated in our frying pan, we prepped a bowl of flour, mixed in a little salt, pepper, and dried basil, and dumped the mess of meat-y stuff into a colander to drain.

Sauteeing took only about five minutes before everything was well-coated and nicely browned. At this point, the sweetbread finally looked appealing. Thank God, because I was almost ready to throw it away without tasting it.

We gave brother-in-law Scrimp a call, and he descended from his apartment on the third floor of our building to join us in sampling this delicacy.

And... I'm not gonna lie. It should be a delicacy. It was delicious.

It was most definitely not meat. Nor was it exactly fat. In fact, my mouth didn't quite know what to make of it, and still doesn't. Imagine eating something that has the faintest flavor of liver, yet doesn't taste like liver at all. Or like meat. Or like anything you've eaten before, ever.

It was rich, that's for sure, and almost impossibly tender (except for the brief crunch of the breading). And it was good. But it was good in a guilty way, as if every bite was made of cream cheese and puppies. Every time I swallowed it, I was vaguely nauseous, and I have no qualms about eating and enjoying weird foods. It was just too rich.

We did manage to finish all of it, between the three of us, and immediately agreed that we had to have something to cut the flavor with. That stuff lingers in your throat like cheap cake frosting.

Because Mr. Scrimp is clever and understands chemistry, he understood that the best way to cut through the lingering... stuff... would be with pure alcohol, so we pulled a bottle of Polish vodka*, made a toast to the calf who had died to satisfy our hedonistic curiosities, and all did a shot. That washed away most of the lingering flavor, thank goodness.

So... the final verdict on sweetbread? Delicious. I absolutely understand why they serve this at fancy restaurants and charge tons of money for it. But I'm not sure when I'll be ready to eat it again, if ever.

* Mr. Scrimp wishes it to be known that the best vodka is always Polish vodka, because vodka was originally a Polish drink. So there, Russians.


  1. If you every feel like trying it again, try it this way.

  2. I'm impressed. I'm a pretty adventurous eater but generally draw the line at organs. But you make it sound so delicious. I'm not sure I'm ready to cook it, but maybe order it at a restaurant.

  3. I'm pretty sure the Ukrainians invented vodka first and the Polish (and Russians) stole it.

  4. I think you should try haggis next (and invite us over). Robert Burns birthday is only a little more than a month away.

    Papa-in-law Scrimp

  5. "cream cheese and puppies" ! Too funny!



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