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Mouthing Off

Sweetbreads of life: Organ meats aren't for everyone, but those who've discovered the seductive charms of sweetbreads know that this delicacy ranks among the most hedonistic foods around. Leave it to the French to be its most ardent consumers: Not only are sweetbreads incredibly high in cholesterol, but French recipes usually call for the addition of cream, butter and egg yolks to further enhance the sweetbreads' heart-choking capacity. A recipe for "grandma's sweetbreads" from Le Delice (see review on page 59) is no exception, but the dish is so luscious that it's worth it to me to eat oatmeal for the rest of the week.

Sweetbreads are the thymus glands of calves--and, less often, lamb or young pigs--and they have a tender texture, a mild flavor and a sponginess that's well-suited to rich, heavy cream sauces. Each gland has two parts, the long "throat" bread and a roundish "heart" bread, and they usually need to be soaked for several hours before being used so that any residual blood that would turn the breads an unappealing dark-red color is drawn out into the water. Also, the thin membrane that covers the gland must be removed before the last cooking steps (don't get rid of the membrane first, because the gland will fall apart), and sweetbreads need to be weighted down for a few more hours to give them a firmer, more even texture.

(Maurice Cochard, chef/owner of Le Delice, says he takes the sweetbreads out of the freezer the day before and lets them defrost in water until he needs them; he says he doesn't think they need to be weighted.)

If all of that sounds like a lot of work, just look at it as foreplay for the final meal.

Before you get that far, though, you need to track down some sweetbreads. Most places get them frozen. A few get them in fresh and then freeze them within a day since the glands are extremely perishable, and freezing does absolutely nothing to harm the meat. I'd always obtained my breads from Oliver's Meat Market (1312 East Sixth Avenue) for $9.99 a pound, but then I learned that Esquire Market (723 South University Boulevard) has them for $6.98 a pound. Sir Loin Meat Shoppe (1910 South Havana Street in Aurora) has them for $12.89 a pound, but that's only if you're desparate. That's veal sweetbreads we're talking about, by the way.

I'd thought there was no such thing as beef sweetbreads--in fact, several otherwise reputable cookbooks and food encyclopedias say as much, including Madeleine Kamman's The New Making of a Cook, in which the esteemed teacher writes, "In animals older than a year, the gland shrinks and disappears. This is why one never finds beef sweetbreads." Well, that's incorrect, although it took two dozen phone calls across several states to finally confirm it.

First I phoned Fred's Fine Meats (5614 East Cedar Avenue) to get his price on sweetbreads. "They're $2.49 a pound," said the guy who answered the phone. I was ready to send someone over there immediately to buy ten pounds until I asked why theirs were so cheap. "Well, these here are beef sweetbreads," he said. "People didn't want to pay the price for veal ones, so I just get these." The gentleman could not, however, tell me what the difference was between what he was selling and sweetbreads from a younger animal. "These are bigger," he offered.

The folks at Tony's Meats & Deli (4991 East Dry Creek Road in Littleton) didn't know the difference, either, although they also sell beef sweetbreads for sixty cents more per pound than those at Fred's. Since there was a huge nutrition convention going on in Denver the day I was trying to unearth this info, I was unable to get anyone on the phone, so I tracked down Susan Parenti, a consultant and former culinary-center director for the National Cattleman's Beef Association in Chicago.

Parenti confirmed that within the last decade, the industry has found a small market for beef sweetbreads, which are from bovine older than one year. "The thymus gland does disappear after the cows reach puberty," Parenti says. "My understanding is that you have maybe a few months after puberty sets in before the gland starts to shrink and disappear. So these beef sweetbreads are from young beef, which is still at least a year old."

Parenti has never tried the beef version, so she couldn't tell me how it might differ from veal. I decided to do a comparison using Le Delice's recipe--and I found that I didn't need to go any farther than my rural neighbors to find sweetbreads in the freezer from this past year's slaughter. The beef sweetbreads were bigger, darker and grainier in texture than the veal, and in the sweetbreads grand-mere recipe that follows, they were stronger in flavor, with an almost musky, liver-like taste that didn't take as well to the sauce. My neighbors use these sweetbreads in a beef stew that cooks for hours, which makes the beef 'breads more tender and smoothes out the flavor.

But considering their alarmingly high cholesterol count, sweetbreads are not for everyday eating, anyway. I'd say splurge for the veal.

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