There are a handful of Portland restaurants that we’ve had our eyes on. Last year for my birthday, Beryl took me down south for a weekend of friends and food. We went to a couple restaurants, but the highlight of the weekend (outside of reconnecting with my wonderful musician friend Katie Sawicki and her partner Tara) was eating at Gabriel Rucker’s ode to oft-neglected meats: Le Pigeon. I’m not in the restaurant review business, so I’ll just say that if you live in Portland, or find yourself in the area, do yourself a favor and give them a visit. One phenomenal dish that we discussed for a while afterwards was their take on buffalo wings, using sweetbreads instead of chicken, and pairing it with a buffalo style sauce and a blue cheese slaw.
Sweetbreads are neither bread nor are they especially sweet. They are the thymus gland, or sometimes pancreas, of calf or lamb. The name apparently comes from Old English, where sweet described the taste in comparison to savory muscle meat, and bread is derived from the Old English word braed, meaning “flesh”. We recently acquired some sweetbreads from our favorite vendor for all things beef, Olsen Farms. Not knowing the first thing about preparing them, I got some advice from my friend Josh Silverman, owner and chef at the fantastic restaurant Nimbus in Bellingham, WA (worth the trip up to Bellingham for you Northwest folks…).
Sweetbreads need to be soaked overnight in milk or water to help remove impurities, poached in an acidified stock, trimmed of their (rather disgusting) membrane, and pressed for a number of hours. They are typically breaded and pan fried, but they can be used in a number of different ways Here’s what they look like after soaking and poaching (before trimming):
We decided to try our hand at recreating the buffalo sweetbreads we had at Le Pigeon, all the while being prepared to order a pizza should it be inedible. For our interpretation, we breaded the pressed sweetbreads, and then deep fried them in suet that we also procured from Olsen Farms (primarily out of curiosity that emerged from the frying oil discussion had in the comments of the french fry post a week ago). In the end, we were happily surprised! They came out delicious: mild and creamy on the inside, crisp and spicy on the outside, and the blue cheese slaw was just the thing to tame the fire from the buffalo sauce. It was not quite on par with the creaminess of the best sweetbreads we’ve had in restaurants. But it was an encouraging first try.
Stay tuned for the next installment of our two-part offal series: Beryl plays with kidneys!
Buffalo Sweetbreads with Blue Cheese Slaw
This recipe is for about ¾ lb of untrimmed sweetbreads. Adjust as necessary
Prep the Sweetbreads:
- 1 quart chicken or vegetable stock or water
- ¼ cup white wine or Champagne vinegar
- 1 tsp salt
- bay leaf
- herbs, such as thyme, if desired
Soak sweetbreads refrigerated overnight in milk. The next day, remove the sweetbreads from the milk and rinse thoroughly in cold water. Place the sweetbreads in a pot and cover with vegetable or chicken stock or water, add a bay leaf, any herbs you want, and salt and vinegar. You want the stock to have the bite of vinegar, but not taste like pickling brine: around 3-4 tablespoons of vinegar and 1 teaspoon of salt per quart of water. Bring to a gentle simmer and poach for about 10 minutes. You want them to feel plump, but not hard. Drain the sweetbreads and plunge into ice cold water to stop the cooking process. Trim sweetbreads, and remove any membrane covering them, while picking them apart to the desired size. Finally, press under a heavy weight in a perforated pan or strainer in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours to remove some of the liquid. I wrapped them in kitchen towels and pressed between two plates.
Blue Cheese Slaw:
- ½ cup crumbled blue cheese, such as roquefort
- juice of 1 lemon
- 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
- salt and black pepper to taste
- 3 stalks celery, thinly sliced on a bias
- 1 green onion with tops, thinly sliced on a bias
- ½ small head of green cabbage, shredded
Lightly mix together the blue cheese, lemon juice, mayonnaise, and salt and pepper in a large salad bowl. Stir in the celery, green onions, and bagged coleslaw, and mix until well-coated.
- ¼ cup hot sauce (preferably Franks Red Hot, but Tabasco works too)
- ¼ stick butter
- 1 small clove garlic, finely minced
- 1 Tbsp light brown sugar
- scant teaspoon worcestershire sauce
- salt, to taste
Combine ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring frequently. Simmer gently for a couple of minutes and then remove from heat. Cover and let sit for about 20 to 30 minutes.
Cook the Sweetbreads:
- soaked, poached, trimmed, and pressed sweetbreads
- ½ cup flour, for dredging
- 1 egg
- ¼ cup milk
- ¾ cup all-purpose flour
- ¾ cup bread crumbs
- ¼ tsp salt
- ¼ tsp black pepper
- ¼ tsp onion powder
- cayenne pepper, to taste
- 2 cups frying oil such as suet, peanut oil, or canola oil
Place ½ cup of flower in a small bowl. In another small bowl, beat the egg and the milk together. In a third bowl, combine ¾ cup flour with the breadcrumbs, salt, pepper, onion powder, and cayenne. Mix well with a fork.
Heat suet or oil in a pot over medium heat to about 360˚F. Watch your temperature carefully as you fry and adjust as necessary.
Lightly season the prepared sweetbreads with salt and pepper, then dredge in the first bowl of flour, shaking to remove excess. Dip in the egg mixture, and then roll in the bread crumb mixture to coat.
Gently lower the breaded sweetbreads into the oil and fry at 360˚F for about 4 to 5 minutes, until golden. Remove from oil with a slotted spoon, and place on a paper towel. Coat the fried sweetbreads with buffalo sauce (or serve the sauce on the side) and plate on top of the blue cheese slaw (press the slaw into a ring mold or a ½ cup measuring cup for nice presentation). Serve with additional sauce, more crumbled blue cheese, and celery sticks on the side if desired. Have water on hand to quench the fire!
Serves 2, scale as desired