Off the Eaten Path: Sweetbreads

by Eric Franz | September 1, 2008 8:18 pm

Turn on, tune in, eat out. Much as Timothy Leary put in words the driving idea of the 60’s LSD culture, today we must adapt this to our culinary adventures, wherever they may take us. Trying new things is nothing to fear; the expansion of the mind realized through gastronomical experiences being the utmost in the modern trip experience. All the senses can be stimulated beyond what one might think possible with no chemical aid beyond those found in cuisine not yet explored in the average person’s lifetime. Imagine other-worldly colors, tastes beyond what you thought possible, textures not found from any other source, smells forever wafting through your memory only to be rekindled by that one particular piece of cuisine prepared in that one moment of time. Truly it is through food that the modern day-tripper can find their outlet.

Sweetbreads – The Bohemian Café

They’re not sweet. They’re not any form of bread. They are, however, delicious. Sweetbreads, or the thymus gland from lamb, pork, or beef, have been through most of history a poor man’s food, relegated to the servants and paupers of the world. It is only in relatively modern times that their culinary potential was truly glorified by the masses through French haute cuisine. As goes with most of the world’s modern cuisine, it was that servant class that glorified the dish and innovated in preparation of it. One of the most common preparations of sweetbreads, and the one discussed today, involves pan frying. Initially, as with most organ meats, they must be treated to remove otherwise harmful toxins and unpleasant tastes. In this case, it involves either a salt water or acidic water bath to aid in the removal of a tough outer membrane as well as any blood or enzymes not yet cleared from the meat. After this point, it’s common to poach the organ in milk in order to shorten later cooking times as well as remove any lingering iron, preventing a metallic blood-like taste. They can at this point be prepared in any number of ways, the most commonly found today being breaded and pan-fried.

Not the most thrilling piece of meat to look at when cooked, breaded and fried sweetbreads appear as not much more than browned round semi-oblong spheres. It’s what’s inside that makes them so heavily prized in the culinary world. The texture is entirely unique to the organ, truly incomparable to anything else in the realm of food. Silky like foie gras yet much more firm, sweetbreads from young veal or lamb need naught more than a butter or cheese knife to be sliced into morsels appropriate for eating. The taste is as well unique – while all organ meats tend to bear some flavor resembling the animal’s diet, it is not overpowering here, allowing other flavors to come out. A distinct note of fried bacon permeates the meat, though in a much more delicate way, not overpowering everything else around it. There are as well notes of poached egg, browned (not burnt) butter, vinegar, and a certain earthiness not easily put into words but distinctly recognizable to the palate.


Got a hangover? Ease your stomach by having a little. I’m talking about menudo, a classic Mexican soup primarily featuring the stomach lining or tripe of a cow, commonly thought to be a hangover cure in Mexican culture. It’s not just for the morning after a night where you’ve had a little too much fun, however, it’s a delectable soup with countless variations. The most common menudo you’ll find in the Omaha area is menudo rojo turned red by the addition to the beef stock of a variety of hot red chiles, dried and fresh, giving it a spiciness designed to wake up all the senses in the morning. To this is added any number of garnishes, mostly depending on what’s on hand – onions, oregano, more chiles, cilantro, or lime juice. While tripe might not be the most appealing thing to look at, its texture isn’t common in western cuisine, and the thought of eating stomach isn’t entirely appealing to most, if prepared well, it can be a delicious form of offal in any number of forms. Boiled it takes on a soft texture that is both creamy and chewy at the same time, taking on the flavor of whatever’s been surrounding it. In menudo the flavors imparted by the chiles are completely married into the tripe, giving spiciness to an otherwise neutral cut of offal. Menudo is often served solely on special occasions in parts of Mexico, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t enjoy it just for itself any day here in Omaha.

Exploration of the unknown in the culinary world can lead to delights that seem entirely not of this world. For the adventurous, you are rewarded with greater knowledge of everything the human body can experience and sense and feel. So break free of those chains, get out there and go somewhere you’ve never been before and eat something that might freak out the squares, always remembering that life is about experience and the wider variety the greater the life.

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