Frenchy Things, Offal, Veal


The summer before I went to law school, my parents announced that the whole family was taking a ten-day trip to Paris and London, one of those last great family trips before the kids leave home for good. It was a fun and memorable trip, especially from a culinary standpoint – I’d never been to Paris, and the first day, in an attempt to stay awake in the afternoon, I went for a walk in our Quartier Latin neighborhood, where we were staying not too far from Notre Dame. There I passed tiny Syrian shops displaying great trays of multicolored olives, herby vegetable salads, fattoush, and dozens of varieties of phyllo pastries, Tunisian briq stands, couscouseries – the first time I had encountered most of those foods, at least in that form. I had just taken up cooking that year, if in a totally amateurish way that mostly involved wrapping everything in Pepperidge Farms puff pastry and trying not to burn down the kitchen. Back then, the only olives you reliably could get in Milwaukee were green pimento-stuffed cocktail olives and maybe the occasional kalamata in a jar; couscous came in boxes from Near East Foods, complete with flavor packets of highly un-Moroccan herbed chicken bouillon, or dehydrated broccoli and cheese. No one was topping pizzas with fried eggs, or serving perfect little scoops of fruit flavored gelato outside the park in summer, much less selling giant ropes of blood sausage, made according to the family’s 300 year old recipe.

cut me a break, we were just out of the 80s

My dad had a friend in Paris, a businessman who had lived in the city for many years, and in the days to come, he showed us around the city and took us out to eat. One night, we drove to the western side of the city, to the notorious Bois de Boulogne, and boarded a small boat to a little island in the Lac Interieur for dinner at the Chalet des Iles; the next night, we went to the Tour d’Argent, which at the time still had all three Michelin stars.

Tour d’Argent was my first experience with that kind of fine dining. I had no idea what to order – growing up as a picky kid in the suburbs provided no training for this moment – so I surveyed the menu first for the familiar. Duck- ok, I knew liked duck, and that happened to be a house specialty, so I ordered duck as a main course. But I was at a loss when it came to the rest of the menu – it seemed lame to come all the way to Paris to a three-star restaurant and try to order, say, salmon or chicken. I decided to go with plan B: things I’d heard about but never tried. Soon after that, a man’s arm appeared on my right side and slid a ballotine of foie gras before me. Later, the same arm arrived with a plate of ris de veau, veal sweetbreads, in a creamy sauce with vol-au-vent. By the time I tasted the duck, I knew two things: one, I wasn’t a picky eater anymore, and two, I was going to learn to cook for real.

The trip kind of went off the rails a few days after that – my brother ate an undercooked poulet rôti at the Musée d’Orsay cafeteria on our last full day in Paris and spent the London segment of the trip racked with salmonella, which he unfairly blamed on the copious quantities of lamb couscous from the Quartier Latin couscouserie the night before. I ran into some University of Wisconsin students I knew at our hotel’s outdoor bar, got super drunk with them on cheap wine, and knocked over a huge lamp on my 3 am crawl up five flights of stairs to the hotel room just hours before leaving for London (Mom, if you’re reading this, that’s what happened. Now you know). Last day shenanigans aside, though, we had a great time. And we had sweetbreads.

Sweetbreads are the thymus and/or pancreas of the veal or lamb. The thymus, or neck sweetbread, is long and cylindrical – unlike the somewhat more globular pancreas – and is absent in the adult animal. Probably because few people enjoy preparing them at home, sweetbreads are not widely available in stores, but if you have access to a true butcher or a good meat market, you should be able to order them. For the best flavor, and to make them easier to handle, you need to prepare sweetbreads thoroughly, which involves some planning – they should be soaked in salt water to remove blood, the membrane needs to be removed, and then they should be dried thoroughly and compressed somewhat to form them and make them easier to handle. Rich and mild, they’re versatile – you can roast them whole (one of my favorite ways), slice and deep fry, or poach in courtbouillon and sauce. They need acid to balance the fat and the slight visceral quality. Don’t overcook sweeties – you don’t want them to become rubbery and tough. Short of that – well, I think they need to be cooked through until just completely cooked but still creamy. I’ve had sweetbreads cooked what can only be described as medium rare – warm but not completely cooked through to the interior – and although I respect the decision to serve them in a more natural form (this was at Manresa), I found the sweetbreads really organ-y, and not in a good way.

A last note about sweetbreads: probably not an everyday food. 100g (3 1/2 ounces) of sweetbreads ring in at 236 calories, 77% of them from fat (!). Of course, they’re incredibly rich, so you probably won’t eat more than 50g at a shot in a tasting portion, and it’s not going to kill you if you don’t do it every day.

Pan-roasted sweetbreads, cauliflower, sherry vinegar reduction

You don’t think of cauliflower as a Spanish vegetable, but Spain grows much of the European Union’s cauliflower (second only to Italy) and, in Spain, cauliflower often is served with a pimentón and garlic sauce. Here, whole sweetbread lobes are dusted in pimentón, roasted and served atop sweet roasted cauliflower with a butter-enriched sherry vinegar reduction.

I garnished the plate with a powder of ground dried arbequina olives. The earthiness and slight bitterness of the olives perfectly offsets the rich sweetbread and the sweet/sour sauce; if you don’t want to deal with dehydration, just pit and halve some arbequinas or niçoise olives and sprinkle them around the plate.

2 veal sweetbreads
1 tsp each Pimentón de la vera agridulce (bittersweet) and picante (hot)
salt and piment d’espelette
1/2 c Wondra
1 head cauliflower, florets only
1 large leek, white and light green only, julienned
vegetable oil
olive oil, preferably Spanish
1/4 c dry white wine
1/4 c sherry vinegar
3 tbsp cold unsalted butter, divided
1/4 c pine nuts
2 dozen arbequina olives, pitted and halved
thyme leaves, washed and dried
parsley leaves, washed and dried

Prepare the sweetbreads at least 8 hours and up to a day in advance by soaking in cold water (in the refrigerator), changing twice if you can. The water should be salted 1 tsp per 2 cups.

Drain. Remove the membrane with a thin, sharp knife and then divide into large lobes (along natural lines). Roll the sweetbread lobes in clean cheesecloth or kitchen towel to form and dry. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Convection oven 200F/93C.

Place the olives in a single layer on a silpat-lined sheet pan. Bake until dry (about 90 minutes; they don’t have to be rock-hard, just not moist). Remove from the oven and cool. Transfer to a clean spice grinder and grind to a powder. Cover tightly until use.

Oven 400F/205C.

Place a small saucepot over medium heat with about 2 tbsp olive oil. When hot, add the leeks. Cook slowly until golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon; season and set aside.

Place a small saucepot over medium low heat with the dry white wine. Reduce to au sec (until syrupy and nearly totally cooked off); add the vinegar. Reduce again by 2/3. At this point you can hold until service (stop just short of the 2/3 reduction).

Place the pine nuts in a single layer on a sheet pan; toast in the oven until uniformly golden. Remove and cool.

Trim the cauliflower florets to remove the stalks entirely, leaving only 1/2″ or slightly smaller chunks of floret. Reserve the trimmings for another use, such as soup. Toss the cauliflower lightly in oil in a roasting pan and place in the oven. Roast until golden brown; toss and return to the oven and continue to roast. At this time, turn the oven down to 300F/150C.

Combine the pimentón and about 1/2 tsp salt and a big pinch of espelette. Dust the sweetbreads with this mixture. Place a large skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp each vegetable oil and butter. Dredge the sweetbreads quickly in Wondra and shake off all excess. They should be just barely dusted. Fry on one side until golden; turn over and place in the 300F oven. Roast until just cooked through and still creamy; remove the cauliflower if necessary to prevent overcooking.

Bring the vinegar reduction back to a simmer and continue to reduce to 2/3 if you were holding it previously. Remove from heat and whisk in the cold butter off heat, swirling to incorporate.

Serve the sweetbreads atop the cauliflower and leek, garnished with the fresh herbs, pine nuts, olive powder, and the vinegar reduction.

Roast veal sweetbread, cauliflower, sherry vinegar reduction

Sweetbreads with bacon and pickled onion

I hate the “everything’s better with bacon” bandwagon – it’s so cliché; everything is NOT better with bacon, and bacon has become the universal crutch for adding a tasty component to a dish that otherwise lacks interest. Having said that, sweetbreads are a natural and classic pairing with bacon.

This was a hasty dish conceived to use one leftover sweetbread (prepared but not cooked for the above recipe) and the end chunk of some house-made bacon on a weeknight. Assuming that you thought about making sweetbreads in advance (and you would have to, since it’s almost impossible to just pick these up at the butcher on the way home), and you began soaking them the night before after dinner, this dish can come together in about half an hour. Just trim up the sweetbreads while cooking up the bacon and onions, and then give it a pan roasting – all in the same pan.

2 veal sweetbreads
salt and piment d’espelette
1/2 c Wondra
4 oz (1/4 lb) slab bacon, cut into 1/4″ x 1″ batons
one small red onion, peeled and 1/2″ dice
3 tbsp red wine vinegar, divided
dijon mustard
chives, washed and dried
thyme leaves, washed and dried
parsley leaves, washed and dried

Prepare the sweetbreads at least 8 hours and up to a day in advance by soaking in cold water (in the refrigerator), changing twice if you can. The water should be salted 1 tsp per 2 cups.

Drain. Remove the membrane with a thin, sharp knife and then divide into large lobes (along natural lines). Roll the sweetbread lobes in clean cheesecloth or kitchen towel to form and dry. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Oven 300F/150C.

Place a skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add the bacon batons. Reduce the heat slightly. Cook slowly until brown and crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon; season and set aside. Remove all but 1 tbsp of the bacon fat from the pan and reserve.

Return the pan with the 1 tbsp bacon fat to medium heat and, when hot, add the onion. Reduce heat slightly and sauté slowly until golden. Add the red wine vinegar and cook, stirring, until vinegar has been absorbed or evaporated. Season with salt and combine with the bacon. Wipe out the pan with paper towels.

Combine the salt and espelette. Season the sweetbreads lightly with this mixture. Place a large skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add 2 tbsp of the remaining bacon fat (if necessary, supplement with vegetable oil). Dredge the sweetbreads quickly in Wondra and shake off all excess. They should be just barely dusted. Fry on one side until golden; turn over and place in the oven. Roast until just cooked through and still creamy.

Remove from the pan and return the bacon and onions to the pan over medium heat, tossing just to moisten and warm through.

If you have any bacon fat remaining, make a quick vinaigrette by whisking together 1 tsp mustard, a pinch of salt, and 1 tbsp red wine vinegar, and then whisking in 3 tbsp bacon fat (make up the rest with a neutral oil like grapeseed if you don’t have enough). Whisk in some snipped chives and thyme leaves.

Serve the sweetbreads atop the bacon and pickled onion, garnished with the fresh herbs and, if you have it, the vinaigrette.

Veal sweetbreads, house-made bacon, pickled onion

Italian, Veal


After the big snow, I found some good-looking free raised veal shanks at the market, and thought about making ossobuco, which I haven’t cooked in years. Ossobuco alla milanese is a classic Lombardian pairing of braised
veal shank with risotto alla milanese – risotto flavored with saffron. The “buco” refers to the hole in the shank bone, filled with marrow, which partly disintegrates into the braising liquid – the remainder is a rich,
fatty treat to be eaten with a small spoon.

Veal is young calf (usually under 24 weeks), and has a milder, milkier flavor than beef. Because it is so delicate, I like to pair it with earthy flavors – truffles, mushrooms, brown butter, sage. As it happens, I had a large quantity of frozen sage brown butter in the reach in, and some mushrooms to use up as well. So I decided that, rather than the classic milanese preparation, I would prepare a braised shank with meaty king oyster mushrooms, paired with a brown butter and sage risotto. The astringency and slight bitterness of the sage balances the rich milkiness of the veal, and the earthy mushrooms accentuate its meatiness. To enhance the risotto and tie the components of the dish together, I incorporated the marrow from the prepared shanks.

Braised veal shanks

4 veal shanks, about 10 ounces each
2 medium carrots, diced 1/4″
1 small onion, diced 1/4″
1 large or two small ribs celery, diced 1/4″
1 c dry white wine
4-6 canned plum tomatoes (I use San Marzano DOP), depending on size)
2 c white veal stock, or chicken stock
several sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
olive oil
salt and pepper

Oven 275F

Season the shanks on both sides with salt. Place a deep, heavy pan over medium-high heat and, when hot, add a little olive oil to film the pan. Add the shanks, browning well on both sides (about 3-4 minutes per side).
Remove the shanks and set aside; lower the heat to medium low.


Add a little more oil to the pan if necessary (it should not be) and add the vegetables. Sauté the vegetables until tender and golden.

Deglaze the pan with wine, stirring. Reduce the wine by 2/3 and add the tomatoes, breaking up as you go. Add the herbs and stock and bring to a simmer. Return the shanks to the pan.

Cover with a parchment lid with a hole in the center. Place in the oven. Turn the shanks over every 45 minutes, for 3 hours total braising time. Test the shanks for tenderness; if they require more time (they should not), return to the oven until tender.

Remove the shanks to a plate, remove the marrow, and set aside for the risotto. Strain the pan contents through a chinois, pressing well to extract as much liquid as possible as the vegetables disintegrate. Reduce
the strained braising liquid until beginning to thicken, reduce heat to a simmer, and return the shanks to the pan to glaze well. Hold for service (cover with parchment lid if necessary and hold in a warm oven.

King oyster mushroom

1/4 lb king oyster (eringii) mushrooms, washed well and sliced 1/2″ batons
2 tbsp butter
1/4 c dry white wine
juice of 1/2 lemon
several sprigs thyme, leaves only
small handful flat-leaf parsley leaves, minced
salt (black truffle salt is great) and pepper

Place a deep, heavy pan over medium heat and, when hot, add the butter to the pan. When the butter foams, add the mushrooms, browning well.

Add the white wine to the pan and cook until the mushrooms absorb the wine; finish with lemon juice, parsley, and thyme and season. Hold for service.

Brown butter risotto

3 oz butter, divided into 4 pieces
1 small onion, diced 1/4″
3 cloves garlic confit, pureed
1 1/2 c carnaroli or arborio rice
1 c dry white wine
6 c white veal stock, or chicken stock
8 chives, minced
about 20 sage leaves, washed and dried
bone marrow from prepared ossobuco
salt and pepper
1/2 c or so grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

About 25 minutes before service, bring the stock to a simmer and maintain at a bare simmer.

Place a risotto pan (any deep pan with somewhat rounded sides will do) over medium heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp (1/2 oz) butter. When foaming and beginning to brown, add the onion, and sweat until tender.

Add the rice to the pan and sauté until the grains are all coated well with oil, about 2 minutes (tostatura). Add the wine to the pan and stir continuously until the wine is absorbed. Increase the heat somewhat and
add the stock, a ladle at a time, stirring slowly and well until virtually all the liquid has been absorbed before adding any more. Each addition should take several minutes. The rice takes about 20 minutes to cook and,
when properly al dente, should still have a little resistance but not hardness in the center of each grain.

While cooking the rice, heat the remaining butter in a small pan until foamy, slightly brown, and nutty. Add the sage leaves and fry until bright deep green and crisp. Hold.

As soon as the rice is cooked al dente, remove from the heat and stir in the reserved marrow, half the brown butter, and the Parmigiano. Season with additional salt as necessary and pepper to taste.

Plate the risotto and add the glazed veal shank, mushrooms, and drizzle with a spoonful of the remaining brown butter. Garnish with several fried sage leaves.

Offal, Veal


Sweetbreads are the thymus gland (or pancreas) of a young calf or lamb. Famously, on season four of Top Chef, Stephanie Izard declared that properly cooked sweetbreads taste like Chicken McNuggets, and it’s true – the meat is mild and savory. Because they are so high in cholesterol – nearly 400mg per 100g cooked – sweetbreads are best served in small quantities.

In this dish, maitake supplements the sweetbreads and raw tart apple offsets the meat’s richness.

2 veal sweetbreads

1 large leek, white only, julienned

1 Granny Smith apple, julienned (1/16″) and held in ice water with lemon juice

2 large maitake (about 200g), trimmed and sliced

4 cloves garlic confit, pureed

2 oz unsalted butter

1 lemon, juiced and strained

pea sprouts, leaves only

1/4 c Wondra

kosher salt

espelette pepper (if unavailable, substitute white pepper and a tiny pinch of cayenne)

Prepare the sweetbreads at least 8 hours in advance by soaking in cold water (in the refrigerator), changing twice. Remove the membrane with a thin, sharp knife and then roll the sweetbreads in a kitchen towel to form and dry. Press the sweetbreads underneath a wooden cutting board weighed down with cans or similar in the refrigerator for about 2 hours before cooking.

Braise the julienned leek in 1 tbsp butter. Season and set aside.

Saute the maitake with the pureed garlic confit in a small amount of garlic oil. When golden, squeeze a small amount of lemon juice over maitake and season. Set aside.

Unwrap the sweetbreads. Slice 5/8″ thick. Season with salt and espelette and dredge in Wondra before pan frying over medium-high heat.  Brown butter and add 1 tsp lemon juice.

Plate maitake and sweetbreads; place butter-braised leeks on top and drained julienne of apples. Spoon hot brown butter over dish. Place a small quantity of pea sprout on top.


Veal sweetbreads, maitake, butter braised leeks, Granny Smith