Talk to someone about thymus glands and they will either tell you about their brutal exercise regimen designed to tackle the effects of an under-active one*, or if you’re mentioning them in a culinary context, they’ll usually make an appalled face, purse their lips, fan their hands and look away, indicating you’ve just gone one step too far towards the frightful foods classed under “I couldn’t possibly eat that, it’s gross!” Even the marketing man’s brave attempt to rebrand the humble thymus as sweetbreads hasn’t exactly seen them leaping off supermarket shelves. In part, this is because it is a recherché supermarket indeed that stocks them, but it’s also because of the incipient confusion between sweetbreads and sweetmeats that makes consumers fearful they may be about to munch on a lamb’s or calf’s balls. If you witnessed pained faces previously, you’re likely to elicit both inadvertent wincing and cupping of hands over groins at this point.
Over the years, we’ve oft been at pains to point out the merits of sweetbreads to our nearest and dearest as well as to you rabble on the interwebs, mostly without any notable success. And, in keeping with that fairly abject track record we would anticipate similarly poor performance with this post too. Nonetheless, so enamored are we of the thymus gland that we’re prepared to give it the good, old college try one more time.
Some long-time readers will know that one of us hails from Manchester in the UK where, coming-up, we learned to appreciate the slightly skanky, uric tang of kidneys in our steak and kidney with suet crust, and so, like offal-inclined boy scouts, we were philosophically well-prepared when, recently, we came across a cracking springtime sweetbread recipe from Manchester’s own The Buttery. A very good-looking dish featuring fried veal sweetbreads and young peas we decided to riff off it using what we had to hand. Devotees of Jane Grigson, The Buttery have since upped the ante further with a sweetbread pie in cold water pastry, which we have bookmarked for when we aren’t feeling quite so thickish around the middle.
We simmered our lamb sweetbreads in a flavorful court-bouillon before trimming and grilling them, serving them over a warm salad of garlicky sautéed dandelion greens and parsley and mint leaves, topped with a soured cream, Dijon mustard and chopped cornichon sauce. Mild and tender with just a suggestion of iodine, lamb sweetbreads are a mite more assertive than their veal cousins, but the herbaceous bitterness of the dandelions and the cool, acidity of the sauce harmonized the whole into a restaurant-quality dish that was simple and light enough for a weeknight meal.
Whether it will inspire any of you rotters to extend your tastebuds remains to be seen, but should you get you dander up there will be few dishes that invite spring into your belly quite so rewardingly.
* We corrected this article on 5/16 at 9.30am EST. The original title was “Hyping Thyroids”, and as commenter Jack mentions below – the thymus and the thyroid are not the same thing. Our mistake. Thanks for setting us straight, Jack!
Lamb Sweetbreads with Warm Dandelion Green, Parsley and Mint Salad
Serves 2 as a main, 4 as an appetizer
For the court bouillon/quick stock
- 1 large carrot, cut into 1-2 inch lengths
- 1/2 large yellow/Spanish onion
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 cloves garlic, smashed
- 4-6 black peppercorns
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- boiling water
For the meal
- 1lb lamb sweetbreads
- 1 large bunch flat-leaf, Italian parsley
- 1 good handful fresh mint leaves
- 1/2 large bunch dandelion greens
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped finely
- 1 tablespoon, good olive oil
- 1/2lb new potatoes/small golden potatoes, boiled
- 2 slices Spanish jamon serrano/serrano ham, cut into long ribbons
- 2 tablespoons sour cream
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon chopped cornichons
- juice of half a lemon
- salt and black pepper
- In a medium saucepan, make a court bouillon of boiling water, carrot, onion, bay leaves, garlic, peppercorns and salt.
- Add untrimmed sweetbreads and simmer gently for 20-25 minutes, until cooked through.
- Drain sweetbreads and allow to cool. Discard stock.
- In a separate medium saucepan, parboil the dandelion greens for up to five minutes to leach out some of the intense bitterness.
- Heat a medium saute pan to medium high and in 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil, warm chopped garlic before adding dandelion greens, and cook gently for 2-4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- When cool enough to handle, trim any fat or stringy bits off sweetbreads, and season with salt and pepper and rub with olive oil.
- On a hot, hot grill, cook sweetbreads until browned and crispy all over, around 8-10 minutes, depending on the size of your sweetbread nodules and the heat of your grill.
- In a small bowl, combine sour cream dijon mustard, cornichons and lemon juice. Season to taste.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine garlicky dandelion greens, parsley, and mint, and dress with mustard-cream sauce.
- Serve grilled sweetbreads over warm salad sprinkled hither and thither with ribbons of salty Serrano ham.
- Enjoy with a cold glass of Chablis.