I’m not a big fan of offal. If you are familiar with Argentinean asado then you know that achuras(offal) are the prized favorites. Since I just stated that I’m not a fan, you are probably wondering why the heck I’m managing this site and waxing the methods of Argentinean barbecue. Well, I’ll eat it and cook it if I have to but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. First, let me just state I have not problem with knowing where these organs come from and what functions they perform to keep those tasty by-products that we know of as rack of lamb or tenderloin in check. The problem I have with most offal is that I, more often than not, hate the texture or taste–primarily the texture turns me off. Now, before you chastise me, I’ll admit that most offal I’ve sampled was probably never prepared properly to really bring out the best of flavors. Kidneys, as an example, top the list but perhaps if some expert French chef served them up with a delicate yet flavorful sauce I might change my mind, but until then I’m not a fan.
All of that was generally speaking, but there is one offal item that I enjoy dearly. Sweetbreads. I’m not a big fan of sauteed or braised sweetbreads but toss them on a barbecue grill until crispy and I’m in heaven. It’s like bacon’s long lost relative.
Fortunately, or let me say unfortunately, many people share that same love for sweetbreads as they do with bacon, particularly here in Argentina. The sad part is, sweetbreads, at times, can be downright impossible to find, even at restaurants. They, the restaurants, are usually the first ones to suck them all up. Whether it is to satisfy the hunger of tourists or locals, who knows. I can’t count how many times we would frequent our favorite parrilla restaurants with our mouths watering at seeing mollejas on the menu only to be turned down with the simple word of “no” in response to our question: “Do you have mollejas?”
To cook them at an asado is an even harder feat. You really have to dig around town to find a butcher or market that carries them. This is usually done by visiting various meat markets and asking “Do you have mollejas” until you find someone that says “yes” or “no, but maybe next week.” Next week isn’t guaranteed but at least you can mark a spot on the map that may offer them sometime in the future. With supermarkets, you end up playing the lottery, meaning just a few times out of the year they might have them but you better be there on those days. And who knows which days those are. Lamb sweetbreads are lot harder to come by than veal or young beef.
In areas where you have large estancias that raise sheep, such as Tierra Del Fuego, super fresh lamb sweetbreads(mollejas de cordero) are not too hard to come by during the summer months. That is, of course, after you know which places carry them and which day of the week the meat is delivered. When that happens, you better be there when they are unloading the truck or you might as well say goodbye to the excellent asado you had planned for the weekend. The cordero(lamb) and sweetbreads that I buy are usually from Estancia Maria Behety, which is about 15 km outside of town. (Some photos of the estancia can be viewed here)
Sweetbreads should be purchased raw, either fresh or frozen. In some cases you might be able to find them precooked, but I’d recommend buying them raw. Unfrozen sweetbreads are very perishable and should be cooked within one day of purchase. If you can’t cook them within that time period just toss them in the freezer and they’ll be fine. Always be sure to ask the butcher when they received the sweetbreads as well as whether or not they were frozen beforehand. If they were previously frozen, and defrosted that day, use them within a day. Do not refreeze them. The flesh should have a nice creamy white or pinkish color.
Like matambre and a few other meats, many cooks have their own methods of preparation. One method is to soak them in either milk or acidic water(water with a touch of lemon or vinegar) some hours before cooking–with fresh changes of such liquids throughout that time period. The purpose of this it to draw out any blood, toughen the fat and membranes for easy removal, and to provide a cleaner taste. Soaking or not, some will also blanch them in a liquid(such as milk, water, wine & water, etc) for a few minutes to toughen them up even further in order to make trimming easier. Then there are some who just toss the raw sweetbreads on the grill after a quick trimming. Those who follow that method say there is hardly any difference in taste and texture compared to doing any soaking or blanching beforehand.
Many times, lamb sweetbreads do not come all pretty and somewhat prepared where you only have the sweetbread part with a little fat and membrane. As you can tell in the photo I posted of raw sweetbreads, there is a substantial amount of fat and lamb meat. With sweetbreads that come like this, it is best to give them a quick blanch, in addition to soaking perhaps, to remove some of the fat and membrane tissue yet leave the lamb meat intact. The actual sweetbreads in the photo are quite small, about the size of a large thumb. Very difficult to grill at such a small size without the lamb meat to support it. Therefore, I ended up cooking them as is.
Now the last thing you have to decide on is whether or not to butterfly them. Meaning, to make a slice about half way through the thickest part in order to spread the sweetbreads out into a larger yet thinner piece. Not every piece needs to be butterflied, only those that might be much larger than the rest. This will allow everything to cook evenly at the same time and you’ll end up with a nice crispy texture overall. If you prefer a softer texture they just leave out the butterflying part.
Now for the easy part. Sweetbreads are quick to cook on the grill and quite hard to mess up unless you really over do it. However, it is hard to put a time on how long they will need to cook. This depends on what other meats you are cooking and how hot the grill is. They make a great starter meat along with chorizo so I usually go ahead and put them on the parrilla in the beginning. Make sure that the section on which they will be placed is clean and well oiled since they can stick very easily. Season them lightly with salt before placing on the grill and have a few halved lemons on hand to sprinkle on some juice while cooking. Flip them over when the sides facing the grill are golden and crispy. That’s when you want to squeeze on that lemon juice. Remove and serve when the other side is golden too.
Always have lemon wedges readily accessible at the table for your guests to squeeze upon these tasty treats. Once you try them, you’ll never go back to sautÃ©ed sweetbreads.