Calf’s Sweetbreads with Caramelised Shallots and Balsamic Vinegar Sauce

This dish is made interesting by contrasts. It is, substantially, a sandwich of firmly braised sweetbread between crisp potato galettes. The flavours are a balance of balsamic vinegar, caramelised shallots, and good olive oil. No one flavour should predominate, and balsamic vinegar, especially a really good old one, will sharpen and enhance the delicate flavour of sweetbreads without upstaging it.

It is not difficult to make but I recommend that you prepare the stock a day or two in advance. Though it is not labour intensive, it takes time.

I have heard many wild and weird stories about what sweetbreads may be. They are in fact glands near the base of the throat, and they perform tasks a lot pleasanter than do the kidneys and liver. I cannot understand why anyone should be timid about eating them. This recipe is as good an introduction as any if you haven’t cooked them before.

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  • lb (675 g) calfs sweetbreads
  • aromatics: slices of onion, leek and carrot, sprigs of thyme
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • a dash of wine vinegar

Veal Stock

  • 1 lb (450 g) veal bones
  • 1 each of the following: onion, leek, tomato, carrot, garlic clove, small sprig of thyme
  • 4 fl oz (120 ml) red wine
  • 1 teaspoon arrowroot

Potato galettes

  • lb (675 g) potatoes
  • 2 tablespoons groundnut oil

Caramelised shallots

  • 12 shallots
  • groundnut oil
  • 1 teaspoon sugar

To Complete

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar


The veal Stock

  1. Cut the bones into approximately 1 in (2.5 cm) pieces. Roast them in a preheated 400°F (200°C) Gas 6 oven, until they are golden brown, approximately 40 minutes. Try to avoid blackening them because this makes the stock bitter. Lift them from the roasting tray to a saucepan with a slotted spoon so that you take the minimum amount of grease. Empty the fat from the roasting tray into an old tin can rather than pouring it down the sink.
  2. Pour 2 pints (1.2 litres) of water into the tray and boil hard for a minute. This process — deglazing — will capture all the flavour from the bone-roasting process. Pour this on to the bones in the pan.
  3. Peel and roughly cube the vegetables and garlic, then fry them until they start to brown. Season with salt and pepper and the small sprig of thyme. Add the red wine and boil hard for a few seconds. Pour this mixture into the pan with the bones and water.
  4. Bring the stock to the boil, and let it simmer for 2 hours, skimming carefully. Strain it into a smaller saucepan.
  5. Add a further 10 fl oz (300 ml) of cold water, which will cause most of the imperfections in the stock to rise to the top where they can be skimmed off. Reduce by about half. You should have just over 10 fl oz (300 ml) of reduced veal stock.
  6. Mix the arrowroot with a little water in a cup, and whisk it into the stock to thicken slightly. Strain the stock into a clean container and keep it until needed. (If not needed immediately, let it cool, and refrigerate.)

The Sweetbreads

  • Soak overnight in cold water.
  • Carefully cut away most of the membrane from the outside, leaving just enough to hold the lobes together.
  • Place in a saucepan with the aromatics, a little salt and black pepper, and a dash of wine vinegar. Add enough water to just cover the breads, then cover with a circle of buttered paper.

    Use your head when choosing a saucepan. If you opt for a huge one that needs gallons of water, you will overcook the breads by the time the water boils.

  • Bring the pan to the boil, then take it from the heat immediately, and leave the sweetbreads to cool in the cooking liquor. They should then look set, but will be still soft, almost gelatinous to the touch.

The Potato Galettes

  • Peel and wash the potatoes but don’t leave them in the water. Grate through the coarsest setting of your grater, and season with salt and pepper.
  • Make eight galettes each from a tablespoon of grated potato, about 3 in (7.5 cm) diameter and 1/4 in (6 mm) thick. Fry them one at a time in the groundnut oil, until crisp on the outside with a soft interior.

The Caramelised Shallots

  • Peel the shallots and fry them quickly in a little oil in a pan so that they are brown on the outside, about 3 or 4 minutes.
  • Add the sugar and a little black pepper, then cook them in a hot oven — say, 400°F (200°C) Gas 6 — until they are soft, about 15-20 minutes.

To Complete

  • Slice the sweetbreads into escalopes about 1/3 in (8 mm) thick. Season with salt and pepper and brush with some of the olive oil.
  • Re-boil the reduced veal stock with a tablespoon of the balsamic vinegar. Keep boiling until it reaches a shiny and slightly syrupy consistency.
  • Quickly fry the sweetbreads in a red-hot, dry pan. They shouldn’t take more than a minute on each side.
  • Place one potato galette in the centre of each plate. Put a slice of sweetbread, or two if they are small, on each potato galette. Dribble over a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and place another potato galette on top.
  • Pour some sauce around and put three caramelised shallots next to the sweetbreads.