Thinking outside the bone
by Jefferson Munroe
For one accustomed to the chewiness of a steak or a chicken breast, the textures found in off cuts are revelatory. Unlike quick cooking methods, the techniques required to render these cuts edible release collagens and soften connective tissue. The resulting gelatin coats the tongue and allows flavors to linger, and deliciousness ensues.
“Waste not, want not” led me to the land of variety meats. A burgeoning concern for animal welfare met my Yankee thriftiness head on when confronted with an organic, grass-fed rib eye steak that costs over $20 a pound. Nervous pacing and a wandering eye found short ribs, chuck roasts, and crosscut shanks at prices closer to my budgetary restraints. A bevy of stews, hot pots, braises, and soups ensued. With each dish I learned that foresight, patience and adjusted seasoning are the keys to cooking these neglected parts of the animal we aren’t familiar cooking with.
Let’s take a quick visit to the land of non-skeletal meats. Open your mental meat locker and take a look at a side of beef—pretty much all flesh and bones.
Due to the rather unsavory imagery associated with offals, euphemistic terms have arisen, with sweetbreads taking first prize for best marketing campaign.
Sweetbreads come from lamb or veal calves and are either the pancreas (stomach) or thymus (neck) gland. Their name comes from the texture and slight sweetness the food gives off once cooked.
After the initial preparation, sweetbreads have a creaminess reminiscent of soft tofu that combines wonderfully with the crunchiness it gets after pan frying it.
The goal of this preparation is to achieve what offal enthusiast Fergus Henderson describes as the “nutty nodule,” which creates a delightful mix of textures and flavors when paired with any number of sauces (think sorrel puree or an herb mayonnaise) and veggies (blanched bitter greens or fresh garden peas are traditional favorites).
One can harness the creaminess of sweetbreads in other settings—think braises or terrines (such as the Smoked Ham and Sweetbreads Terrine) where the sweetbreads provide a light counterpoint to the denser, heavier ingredients. The beauty of sweetbreads is their versatility and mild flavor, so in terms of trying new body parts of different animals, the stomach and neck glands are a great place to start.