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James Beard's Recipe Box: Sweetbreads à la Crème



November 04, 2010


Welcome to our second guest post about cooking from James Beard’s American Cookery. In this installment, cookbook author Jennifer McLagan prepares Beard's sweetbreads à la crème. (Read our first guest post here.) sweetbreadsJust as I was packing for Paris, after having finished the first edit of my new cookbook, OddBits: What to do with the Rest, the request came: “Would you cook a recipe from James Beard’s American Cookery and blog about it?” I simply wanted to run away and not write another word. Anyone who has worked on a cookbook knows this feeling. When you finally reach the end of the project you think you never want to see your computer or kitchen again. However, I know from experience that after a week or two I'm itching to get back into the kitchen. The markets in Paris also inspire me to cook. So I said yes. I packed James Beard’s American Cookery in my suitcase and left for France, having no idea what I was going to cook from the book. As I later flipped through the pages, I was delighted to discover beef drippings, bacon fat, lard, goose fat, and butter amongst the ingredients in his recipes. (Anyone who knows me understands that I am keen on fat.) Beard also loves odd bits. His book is loaded with brains, tongues, feet, liver, kidneys, and sweetbreads. Despite having spent the last year cooking such shunned parts almost exclusively, these recipes still managed to catch my attention. There is an excellent triperie, a stall specializing in odd bits, in our Parisian market. It’s a veritable Aladdin’s cave for an enthusiast like me. I lined up, (there is always a long queue) while my husband scouted the whole counter and reported back. “There are sweetbreads, beautiful sweetbreads,” he announced with obvious delight, as these parts—the thymus glands and pancreas of young animals—are among his favorites. When I finally made it to the counter I saw that he was right: the sweetbreads looked fabulous, so we bought a pair. Beard devotes several pages to sweetbreads, but it was his recipe for Sweetbreads à la Crème (page 355), enriched with half a pound of mushrooms, that stood out. One of the reasons we come to Paris in the autumn is to eat mushrooms; the season’s warm days and plentiful rain help them thrive. Our market was full of golden chanterelles (which the French call girolles), black trompettes des morts, and our favorite, porcini (cèpes). I imagine Beard used regular button mushrooms in his recipe, but I knew he wouldn’t mind my substitution of cèpes: in American Cookery, he talks about the evolution of American cuisine, noting that immigrants from different cultures adapted their traditional recipes to the local ingredients found in their new country. With Beard’s permission, I adapted his dish to what was available in my local market. Like many people who cook for a living, I can’t stop myself from tinkering with recipes. Instead of the slightly mysterious “rich cream sauce” that Beard calls for, I added nutty raw-milk crème fraîche. He serves the sweetbreads in patty shells or toast cases as appetizers, and while I could have picked up vol-au-vents at my local boulangerie, I skipped this step, too. Why? So I could cut my mushrooms and sweetbreads into larger pieces and enjoy them as a main dish. The result was delicious. I’ll be cooking more of Beard’s American recipes, with a Parisian twist, during my stay. Jennifer McLagan is a food stylist and writer who divides her time between Toronto and Paris. Learn more about her work at