Sweetbreads act like menu marmite, strongly repelling a lot of people and yet drawing in others with their magnetic appeal. I’ll often order a dish just because it has a side of sweetbreads for a small taste of that pillowy light meatiness. But first off, to dispel the myth once and for all, they are not (or certainly should not be) bollocks of any kind, nor brains. They have a very precise definition. OK, they actually confusingly have two precise definitions. They are either the thymus gland from the neck or the pancreas. Typically from lambs although apparently you can get them from calves as well, I haven’t seen that variety before. Some people with less than strong stomaches avoid them but I defy anyone who likes meat to try one and not instantly love them.
Clearly they are hard to sell since the butcher chucked in an extra pack when I bought some, so two big bags (easily 6 good side servings) for £2.50. Although they are money-cheap, they are not time-cheap, requiring some fiddly (although I stress, not particularly difficult) cooking and preparation to get the best of them. This was my first time cooking them and I was extremely pleased, I’d encourage anyone who loves meat to give it a go. I paired these with sumac, a middle Eastern bright red spice with a sharp lemony flavour to cut through the richness. As an alternative a squeeze of lemon works very well.
This first step isn’t the most appealing if you’re at all squeamish, it does certainly have a gelatinous feel of strange internal organs and slightly odd smell. I quite enjoyed it but Anna had to leave the room. Simply drain them and pop in a pan with a few bay leaves and crushed garlic cloves. Cover with water and bring to the boil, then simmer for 5-7 minutes depending on their size (I did these for 6). This will just cook them through and firm them up so you can handle them. Drain, remove the aromatics and leave to cool. Once cool you’ve got the fiddly bit ahead. That slimy texture was due to the surrounding membrane skin, something which has now cooked and become chewy and sinuous. So, with your sharpest knife and a bit of dexterity slice the membrane carefully off, aiming to keep the pieces as big as possible (grape size or bigger is good). I found cutting into the membrane and slowly peeling off worked well. Cut off any tubes / bloody bits as well, anything that doesn’t look like a miniature brain.
What you end up with should look like this. Free of the majority of the sinew; lovely clean lumps of tasty gland morsels. The final step is to fry them in a hot pan with butter / oil for 2-3 minutes until you get a nice crisp outer layer to contrast with the light meat. Season with salt / pepper and scatter with a teaspoon of sumac or a squeeze of lemon. Eat as soon as possible and don’t tell people what they are until after, they’ll find a love for something they thought they wouldn’t like (perhaps only try this with better friends though).