Tag Archives: sweetbreads

Favourite Cook Books no. 2: Good Things by Jane Grigson

good things

This is not a manual of cookery, but a book about enjoying food. Few of the recipes in it will contribute much to the repertoire of those who like to produce dinner for 6 in 30 minutes flat. I think food, its quality, its origins, its preparation, is something to be studied and thought about in the same way as any other aspect of human existence.

Jane Grigson, introduction to Good Things, 1970

Good Things was Jane Grigson second book and was published in 1971. Although she is known for her later extensive and very comprehensive writings, this is relatively brief.

All of Jane Grigson books are wonderful, and this book is no different: logical, creative, witty and sometimes austere, she weaves a tapestry of each ingredient’s culinary potential; and this is why the book is so great, for each chapter focusses upon a single main ingredient. She shows you just how inventive humans can be with a single ingredient and how it should be savoured in its seasonality to be fully appreciated; something we no longer do. This book has spurred me on in my own efforts to be seasonal. Take, for example, the chapter on celery – a vegetable that we generally either add to the stockpot or crunch on in a boring salad – she says:

The fine pleasure of buying celery in earthy heads, after the first improving frosts of winter, is slowly being eroded by the wash of enterprise and aviation. Almost the year round, cleaned and slightly flabby greenish celery…is on sale at inviting prices. It’s the wise cook who averts her eyes from this profuse and plastic display and waits for November. Then crispness and flavour are at their peak …In any case one of the greatest luxuries you can have in Britain today is simple food of the best quality.’

She then goes onto her first recipe which consists of celery stalks, good Normandy butter and sea salt. This is the genius of Good Things, you are being shown how good something can be if prepared properly, grown skilfully and eaten seasonality and sensibly; essentially Jane is teaching us how to eat.

(NB, click here for a post of my own on the humble celery stick).

Every chapter also perfectly reflects Jane’s own lifestyle; spending half her time between England and France, with a smattering of recipes from other European countries. It really showed how she lived her life, though I can imagine her family got a little sick of some of the focal ingredients when she was recipe testing.

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Sweetbreads: a Jane Grigson – and Neil Buttery – favourite

So what did she pick? Some are probably quite obvious such as venison, asparagus, woodland mushrooms, strawberries and ice creams; others are common and, perhaps, overlooked, like celery, kippers, tomatoes and carrots; whilst some were becoming forgotten or seemed obscure, ones that leap to mind are snails, quince, sweetbreads and fruit liqueurs. Jane’s gift to me is a love of such foods that I never would have sought out, that has demonstrated to me just how good, exciting and varied British food can be, as well as how its history is interlinked inextricably with other countries’ food histories.

Sweetbread Pie

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I think this recipe best sums up the essence and ethos of Good Things; it uses a delicious but forgotten meat cut, is French but you would think it quintessentially English. She discovered it in the charcuterie of a small town in Burgandy and it was the most expensive pâté in the shop. She made it into a pie, a pie so good it made it on my last Pop-Up Restaurant menu. The recipe requires you prepare some sweetbreads – if you’ve never eaten or prepared sweetbreads, have a look at this previous post all about them. In a nutshell, you poach them briefly in a light chicken or vegetable stock, or court-bouillon. For a post on stock-making click here. I am so self-referential these days! If you can’t get as much as the 500g given in the recipe, then use whatever you can get your hands on. I expect it would be excellent even with the sweetbreads omitted altogether!

I have changed only her Imperial weights and measures so that they are metricated…

For the pastry:

300g plain flour

150g of butter and lard

1 tbs icing sugar

water to bind

For the filling:

500g prepared lambs’ or calves’ sweetbreads

125g mushrooms, roughly chopped

2 tbs onion, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, crushed

75g butter

350g lean pork, or veal and pork mixed

225g hard back pork fat

2 rashers green (i.e. unsmoked) back bacon

2 eggs

heaped tbs flour

125g cream

salt, pepper and thyme.

‘Make the pastry in the usual way’, says Jane. I mean to write a post on pastry-making, I shall endeavour to do so soon. Whilst it rests in the fridge, cut up the sweetbreads into even-sized pieces, then cook the mushrooms onions and garlic in the butter, until softened but not brown. Next, make the forcemeat by mincing the pork and veal, if using, the back fat and the bacon through the course and then fine blades. Mix in the eggs, flour, cream and the mushroom mixture. Season with salt and pepper and add a good sprinkle of chopped thyme.

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Line a 450g loaf tin (an old 1 lb tin) with 2 thirds of the pastry. Spread over one third of the mixture over the base of the tin, then a layer of half of the sweetbreads, then a second third of the forcemeat, then the remaining sweetbreads, and lastly the final third of the pork mixture.

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Seal the pie with a lid, brush with egg wash and bake for 90 minutes in a moderate oven – around 180⁰C.

‘Serve warm’, she says, but it is also very good at room temperature. It keeps very well in the fridge if wrapped up tightly in foil or clingfilm.

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Sweetbreads

One of my irregular offal-themed posts (see main post Tail to Nose Eating):
For those that are not aware, sweetbreads are a type of offal and come from the thyroid gland, situated around the throat, of either calves or lambs. For this reason they are often called throat sweetbreads. The thyroid gland, or thymus, produces the hormone thyroxin which is involved in the proper regulation of metabolism. Hyperthyroidism is a common disease where the sufferer produces too much of it, causing very high metabolism and, as a consequence, is rather skinny. I had a cat with it once. The pancreas is commonly sold as heart or stomach sweetbreads, there are other rarely used sweetbreads too such as tongue and cheek sweetbreads. Most people think that sweetbreads are the testicles of calves and lambs; in fact, very rarely are testicles sold under the name of sweetbreads, they are more commonly sold as fries or stones.

Don’t be put off by the thought of eating a gland – they taste light, with a suspicion of iodine and do not have a strong offal flavour. If you are new to offal, or fear it a little, sweetbreads are a good place to start I reckon. But why are they called sweetbreads? Well, they are sweet because they taste richer and sweeter compared to typical meat, and they are bread because the old English word for flesh is bræd.

Sweetbreads were once very, very popular, but have now died a comparative death. Though, like many of the old forgotten cuts of meat, there is a slight resurgence, but nowhere near the dizzy heights of the 18th and 19th centuries. Almost every meat dish seems to have been decked out with breaded sweetbread garnishes. In those days; they were cheap and they were plentiful and they were delicious. Sweetbreads are not the easiest of cuts to get hold of these days, with most of them being snapped up by restaurants, and the few that get to your butcher are snaffled very quickly by those in the know. This, in some ways, in a good thing – they become, not a mere garnish, but the star of the show, something to be savoured. In Jane Grigson’s book Good Things, they have a whole chapter to themselves!

Sweetbreads are best served simply: grilled or fried alongside some dry-cured streaky bacon. Sweetbreads love bacon. They also love black pudding and sweet vegetables such as beans and peas.

I got lambs’ sweetbreads from my butcher WH Frost in Chorlton. For some bonkers reason we can’t sell British calves’ sweetbreads in this country, but we can sell those that have come from mainland Europe.

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Lamb’s sweetbreads in their raw state

Preparation of sweetbreads

Whether you get calves’ or lambs’ sweetbreads they first need to be soaked in salted water for a few hours. This gets rid of any impurities. If you can, change the water a couple of times, but it is no big deal if you do not.

 

Next, the sweetbreads are poached. This can be in simple salted water, but more normal is a light stock such as chicken or vegetable or in a court bouillon of herbs and vegetables.

Simply pop your sweetbreads into the water or stock, bring to the boil and simmer gently for five minutes. Remove, drain and cool before removing any gristly bits. The tricky part is doing this whilst keeping them whole.

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Fried Sweetbreads with Peas and Broad Beans

This recipe is great if you’ve never cooked with sweetbreads before – they are sliced up, so if they do fall apart when preparing them, it doesn’t matter. This recipe is also a very quick dinner – taking only 10 minutes or so to cook. I don’t think it needs to be served with anything, except perhaps a slice of wholemeal bread and butter. By the way, there is nothing wrong with using frozen peas and beans here. This recipe is adapted from The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and it serves four people.

Ingredients

around 150g (6 oz) garden peas, fresh or frozen

around 150g (6 oz) broad beans, fresh or frozen

3 tbs olive oil

100g (4 oz) dry-cured smoked streaky bacon, cubed

500g (1 lb) prepared lamb’s or calf’s sweetbreads, sliced

plain flour seasoned extremely well-seasoned with salt, pepper and a little Cayenne pepper

1 garlic clove, very finely chopped

salt and pepper

Plunge the beans and peas into boiling water for one minute, then drain and tip into cold water. Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the bacon begins to crisp.

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Meanwhile, toss the sweetbreads in the seasoned flour and tip them into the pan along with the bacon. A minute later, add the garlic and fry everything a nice golden brown. Tip away any excess oil and stir in the beans and peas. Cook for another minute, season with salt and pepper and serve piping hot.

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