Nigel Slater: A delicate touch

The Encarta tells us that a delicacy is something nice to eat - a delicious, rare or highly prized item of food. The use of the word 'rare' is correct, but somehow unfortunate, implying that such things are beyond the means of ordinary shoppers when, in fact, many true delicacies are anything but.

Herring roe, for instance, silky soft and as tender as a portion of panna cotta, comes pretty much free when you buy the fish; oysters can cost as little as 50p each and chicken livers are some of the cheapest protein going. Depending on your acceptance of the term, you might also include such giveaways as the parson's nose on a chicken or the gelatinous liver inside a red mullet.

The list of foods we consider worthy of the name varies according to how easy it is to get hold of, rather than how much we are expected to shell out for it. Only a few years ago a piece of sushi with its wafer of sweet ginger and dab of tear-jerking wasabi may well have been held a delicacy; now it is just something you eat at your desk. Elvers, the almost transparent, immature eels, qualify because their season is so short.

But then there are those things that, no matter how common they are, just feel like they deserve the epithet: a single anchovy eaten from its tin, an amaretti, a lychee or piece of pistachio-laden baklava. Much is to do with size - hence the bizarre fact that an anchovy is a more suitable contender than a piece of turbot and, let's be honest, whether or not it appeals to the masses. Something usually stops being a delicacy once you can pick it up in Sainsbury's.

Then again there's the yuk factor. Anything quivery, slippery or covered in veins is likely to qualify, as will anything that has been part of an animal's digestive tract. Brains, heart, spleen, bone marrow or feet will all proudly carry the label. As will stomach linings best known as tripe, or sheep's balls that hide under the charming pseudonym of lamb's fries, or, as the French so delicately put it, frivolities. Which brings me to sweetbreads. Such an enchanting name for the most delicate delicacy of all. Tender as a marshmallow, subtlely flavoured and as rare as hen's teeth they qualify on all grounds. Add to that the fact that few seem to know exactly which part of the body they come from and you have got the a true contender.

Sweetbreads are simply the juicy little thymus glands of young sheep or calves. Lamb's sweetbreads, the only ones that interest me are a true seasonal treat, at their best during the spring when they are barely bigger than a lamb's kidney and twice as tender. Once skinned and blanched - an easy task that takes but a few minutes - the texture becomes creamy and almost dissolves in the mouth. Being so soft, they benefit from something crunchy, hence my habit of cooking the little chaps in breadcrumbs; and with their mildness of flavour comes a call for a piquant sauce, perhaps with capers or mustard (sauce vert is just perfect), or, more simply, a good old garlic butter. Hot, crisp, creamy and garlicky - a delicacy indeed.

Breadcrumbed sweetbreads with garlic butter

The crisp breadcrumb crust and soft, creamy offal is a marriage made in heaven. Some spinach on the side or a salad would be in order. You could add a little piquancy by throwing some capers into the garlic butter. Serves 2.

300g lamb's sweetbreads
a thick slice of butter
olive oil
half a small, white loaf
a little flour
an egg

for the garlic butter:

125g butter
4 or 5 cloves of garlic
about 3 tbsps of flat-leafed parsley
a dash of Pernod

Peel the thin skin from the outside of each sweetbread, dropping them into a colander under cold running water. Tip into a basin and soak for an hour.

Drain and drop them into a pan of cold water then bring to the boil. Turn the heat down slightly so that the sweetbreads simmer, then leave to cook for a full minute. Remove the pan from the heat, drain the sweetbreads and cool quickly under running water. Peel off the thin skin round each each one unless you've done so already.

To make the garlic butter, peel the garlic and crush it, or chop it finely. Put it in a small basin with the butter, cut into cubes. Chop the parsley finely and add it, with a generous seasoning of salt and black pepper, to the butter.

Soften the butter in a small pan until it is almost melted. Stir in the Pernod and set aside.

Back to the sweetbreads. Break the egg into a small bowl and beat it lightly with a fork. Whizz the bread to crumbs in a food processor, then tip them on to a plate. Scatter a little flour on a saucer. Dip the blanched and skinned sweetbreads first into the flour, then the beaten egg and then the crumbs. I won't pretend it isn't a messy old business but if you use a fork it helps.

Melt the butter for cooking the sweetbreads in a shallow pan and add the olive oil. When the butter starts to froth, slide in the crumbed sweetbreads. Cook them over a low heat for 3 or 4 minutes on each side, turning them as soon as the crumbs have coloured. Remove with a draining spoon and drain on kitchen paper.

Place the sweetbreads on plates and spoon over the parsley butter.

Lamb's liver with mustard and gherkins

A quick supper dish with a thick, slightly piquant sauce. Do, please, make mashed potato to go with it. Serves 2.

4 thick slices lamb's liver
60g butter
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
2 tbsps chopped parsley
3 tbsps dry sherry
a heaped tbsp grain mustard
150ml vegetable or lamb stock
2 heaped tsps redcurrant jelly
4 cornichon/small gherkins, finely sliced

Rinse the liver and pat dry. Melt half the butter in a shallow-sided pan and add the shallots, stirring them regularly over a medium heat until soft. They colour easily, so keep an eye on them. Add the parsley and continue cooking for a minute or two, then stir in the sherry, mustard, stock and redcurrant jelly and the cornichon. Season.

Leave the sauce to simmer for five minutes, by which time it will have thickened to a glossy sauce - not too thick, more of a shiny slush. Taste and add more salt or pepper if you wish. Turn off the heat and set aside.

Melt the remaining butter in a frying pan and when it starts to sizzle put in the slices of liver. Fry over a moderate to fierce heat until the underside is golden brown, then turn and cook the other sides. Aim to keep the middle of each piece pink and juicy, so the cooking time will be about 2 minutes each side. As soon as it is done lift on to warm plates, pour off any remaining butter, pour in the sauce and return the pan to the heat. Stir while it gets hot again, spoon the sauce over the liver and serve straight away.

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