Tania's parents love these things, always order them when we're at a French restaurant, and now they've gotten me hooked. Never had tried to cook'em, though, until pa-in-law ordered some from a source I'd found for him, and told me if I came over he'd give me some. Well, "some" was ONE, but as it was the size of a chicken breast I figured it'd do for two of us. After consulting two of my favorite traditional French chefs, Escoffier and Louis Diat - that last in his capacity as author of Gourmet magazine's old (1950-something) Basic French Cookbook - I decided to stick with Louis, as he'd written his directions deliberately for someone who might not know a sweetbread from a fire hydrant.
The preliminaries are simple, not labor-intensive but time-consuming. I was a little worried as he cautioned that these things are highly perishable, and due to all kinds of circumstances we weren't going to be able to eat this before Monday night. But I did the soaking and blanching right away, the second simmering Sunday morning, and the final cooking yesterday afternoon and evening, and it was one fine, fine dish. It's a sort of synthesis of several recipes, plus some notions of my own.
SWEETBREADS AU GRATIN (serves two or three)
1 big or 2 smaller sweetbreads
Soak sweetbread(s) in cold water for several hours, changing it every hour or so. Then put in a pan with enough cold salted water to cover, and bring it slowly to the boil. Simmer for 5 minutes, then remove and place into cold water. Remove, drain and dry, then remove any covering membrane and whatever connective tissue you can. Wrap in a clean dish towel, set on a plate, then set another plate plus a weight (or a small stack of plates) on top to flatten it. Refrigerate overnight. (If the interval before the next step will be longer than that, take out and unwrap the unwrapped sweetbread(s) and put into a zip-lock bag or other container and refrigerate.)
vegetable broth (you could use chicken or veal stock as well)
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1 cup diced cooked chicken
butter (and olive oil, if you want) for sautéeing
salt, pepper, cayenne
Cover the sweetbread(s) with the broth in a pan. Bring to the boil, then simmer gently for 20 minutes. Remove, dry well. When cool enough to handle cut into large dice - about 3/4" chunks. Heat sauté pan and add butter, or olive oil and butter, and when that's good and hot sauté the mushrooms, seasoning well with salt, freshly-ground pepper and a good dash of cayenne. Remove to a bowl with the diced chicken. Do not wipe out the pan, but add more butter (or butter/oil) and sauté the sweetbread chunks, turning over gently so as not to break them up, and seasoning them similarly to the mushrooms. When they are just getting brown around the edges, scoop them out into the bowl with the chicken and mushrooms.
2 Tbs. butter
2 Tbs. flour
1 1/2 cups hot milk
salt/pepper to taste
1/4 cup heavy cream
6 oz. angel hair pasta (6 "nests", if using that kind - highly recommended)
Buttered panko crumbs, with or without grated cheese
Preheat the oven to 350º. Cook the angel hair in salted water just to the al dente state, then drain. Make a white sauce with the butter, flour and milk. Stir and cook over very low heat for 15-20 minutes, until thick and very smooth. Check the seasoning, then stir in the heavy cream. Stir this into the meat and mushroom mixture. Grease a gratin dish of the right size to accommodate everything, and spread the pasta evenly over the bottom. Spread the creamed mixture evenly over this, and top with a nice coating of crumbs. Set in the middle of the oven until good and hot, finishing up if you like with a few minutes under the broiler element, just enough to brown the top lightly. Serve with a blanched and buttered vegetable, such as young green beans or baby broccolini, or a simple salad. A slightly chilled Beaujolais or a crisp rosé would be good.
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