Sweetbreads. When I hear that word I salivate. I love them, and whenever I see them on a menu I order. Two recent meals in which they played a part I remember especially well: at Babbo, and at Le Pigeon, in Portland. (More on those meals, and restaurants, later.)
While I don’t need an excuse to think of sweetbreads, what brought them to my mind today was a book that I recently added to my collection: “Offal: The Fifth Quarter,” by Anissa Helou. (“The Fifth Quarter” refers to the parts of an animal – the head, feet, tail and innards –that do not belong to the four quarters of the carcass.)
Here is one reason I like this book; it is a quote found in its opening section – “An A-Z of Offal”– that introduces the entry on kidneys:
“Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he like grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”
Ulysses, James Joyce
You see, Anissa Helou not only knows her food, but she also appreciates literature. And food and literature are two of the passions of my life, so any work that combines them interests me.
But back to sweetbreads, and her wonderful book. I was glad to see “An A-Z of Offal,” because I am always encouraging people to venture beyond and try hearts and kidneys and brains … and, yes, yes, yes, sweetbreads. In “An A-Z” Ms. Helou tells us, among other things, that “calf’s sweetbreads are finer than those from sheep,” an opinion with which, after much testing and tasting, I agree. You will also learn that a love of pig’s feet just might have been the undoing of Louis XIV.
If you buy this book, you will have at the ready a handy and informative lexicon of all things offal, and if you read it and cook from it, you and your guests will be the better for it. Above all, it allows one to understand that eating chittlerings or ears is not a macho, daring act, but one of taste, tradition and respect, and that is a valuable and important message indeed.
Full of clear and concise recipes – including Chicken Liver Tartlets, Mexican Pig’s Trotter Salad, and, a favorite of mine, A Head Dinner for Two: (Poached Brain and Eyes with Fleur de Sel, followed by Lamb’s Tongue with Vinaigrette Sauce, ending with Lamb’s Cheek with Blanquette Sauce) – Ms. Helou has stocked “Offal” with wonderful stories from her life and recounts the days and nights she spent in Paris, Barcelona, Marrakesh and other locales getting to know the items and recipes that make up the book. (Mike Cooper’s photography is an effective addition; take a look at his photo of frying pig’s trotters on page 101 and you’ll see what I mean.)
Personal and informative – “I am not one for eating feet stew for breakfast. Raw liver perhaps, but not feet stew.” – this volume belongs in the collection of anyone who embraces head-to-tail cookery. And I urge anyone who now turns up their nose at sheep’s brain and bone marrow to get “Offal: The Fifth Quarter” and explore a new route on their gastronomic journey.