[The Amateur Gourmet is on vacation and, while he’s gone, he’s asked his friends to cover for him. While he hasn’t actually met Scott Gold, The Shameless Carnivore (check out his book!), he is connected to Scott through Scott’s friend Brandon who is the brother of Rena, Craig’s childhood friend who you’ve met many times on this blog. Therefore, Adam is friends with Scott and deeply honored that Scott made a sweetbreads po-boy for his blog. Let the thymus frying begin!]
A story: When I was in college in St. Louis, I decided to have a hamburger in the mall’s food court at a place called — I kid you not — Flamers (apparently, the proprietors were oblivious to the hilarious connotation there). The menu was pretty basic: hamburger, cheeseburger, bacon cheddar burger, etc.. Then I spied something called a “cajun burger.” Being a New Orleans native, I couldn’t help but wonder what a St. Louis fast food joint in a shopping mall would consider “Cajun.” So I asked the girl working the register what it was all about. “It’s like a reg’lar hamburger,” she told me, indifferently smacking away at a gob of chewing gum, “but it, uh…it have Cajun on it.”
It have Cajun on it.
I’ve never heard a single sentence that more accurately and efficiently sums up the way most folks above the Mason Dixon consider Louisiana cuisine: anything with a bunch of red pepper on it, usually fried and/or drenched in butter. For shame.
Anyone who’s actually been to south Louisiana — my hometown, NOLA, in particular — will immediately recognize that Cajun food, while basically peasant fare, has so much more going on than just being spicy. Much like how Hollywood actors assuming that they know how to do a southern accent without any sort of research subsequently wind up sounding like Foghorn Leghorn (Nicholas Cage in Con Air, for example), most Yankees who intuitively feel as though they have a good handle on New Orleans cuisine tend to produce food that would make any proud Louisianian weep fat tears into his gumbo. Take, for example, the humble po-boy. Nothing fancy going on; it’s just a sandwich, usually consisting of fried seafood (shrimp, oysters, catfish, or soft shell crab) or meat, such as roast beef — my favorite — ham, turkey, and the like, served on “French bread” with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and mayonnaise. Easy, right? So why is it that, no matter how hard I try, nor how intensely I search, I have never, in almost eight years of living in New York City, found anything even remotely close to the glorious po-boys of my youth here.
Why is this? Because no one bothers to dig into the details. A po-boy is thing of simple beauty…but also simple to screw up. Take the bread, for instance. What New Orleanians refer to as “French bread” isn’t exactly a classic French baguette, which is too hard on the outside for a classic po-boy. It’ll tear the hell out the roof of your mouth. NOLA French bread is considerably softer, chewier, with a gentle, flaky crust. Also, that fried seafood? It has to be fried to a perfect, delicate golden brown, and not, say, left in the deep fryer until it’s soggy and oozing grease. See? Details.
But can one, I wondered, make a decent po-boy in this city? Is it possible? I decided to give it a go, but, like many of the dishes covered in my book (buffaloaf, jamballama, quail-sadillas.), I wanted to give it a Shamelessly Carnivorous twist. Noticing, once, that the texture of veal sweetbreads was remarkably similar to oysters, I had a novel idea: why not make a fried sweetbreads po-boy? If I saw that on a menu up here, assuming that the chef knew what he or she was doing when it came to my favorite type of sandwich, I’d pay top dollar for it in a heartbeat. My goal was to make something approximating a seafood po-boy from one of my favorite joints in the Crescent City, R&O’s, right on Lake Pontchartrain. One of their shrimp po-boys looks like this:
With that image (and that joyous eating experience) firmly affixed in my mind, I got to work.
First, the main ingredient. If you have any qualms or squeamishness about eating the thymus gland of a veal calf, you can probably stop reading right now. For those who aren’t whiny neophobes or faux gastronomes who blanch at the thought of strange organ meats, you probably know just how wonderful sweetbreads are, not to mention relatively inexpensive and easy to cook. I picked up a pound of veal sweetbreads from my faithful butcher, Frank Ottomanelli, of Ottomanelli’s Meat Market in the Village. Whole, they look like this, a big ole lobe of, well…glandular tissue:
To approximate the seafood effect, I cut the lobe into one-inch segments, which is pretty easy if you have a nice, sharp knife, but also the ickiest part of the entire process. When duly chopped, you get a pile of gland bits roughly the size of large oysters:
Now, the fun part. I coated the segments in lightly beaten egg seasoned with Tony Chachere’s, known to Louisianians simply as “Tony’s,” and the best dry, packaged seasoning blend on the planet. [Note: Do not argue with me on this. It is an a priori truth, like “water is wet.”] Then, I dredged in flour and, yes, more Tony’s, then shook off the excess and popped them, one by one, into a large pan filled with dangerously hot peanut oil, which I like better than vegetable oil because of its higher smoke-point. Turning once to make sure both sides get nice and golden-brown, reserve the sweetbread nuggets to some paper towels to cool.
The last part, the assembly, may be the trickiest. Why? Bread, of course. It is impossible — impossible! — to find real New Orleans-style French bread in the Big Apple. And I know, because I’ve tried. (Note: if you’ve found a source that I’ve somehow missed, then for the love of god, please share!). The closest thing I could find was a fresh loaf of Italian bread, which, while it didn’t quite have the flaky crust of the real deal, was pillowy enough to be adequate. So, take your loaf and cut into sections about 10 inches apiece, then halve. Now, when you order a po-boy “dressed,” that means the liberal application of mayo, shredded iceberg lettuce (yes, iceberg — even romaine would seem weird), pickle slices, and sliced tomato. No need to be judicious with the mayonnaise; any decent po-boy ought to be swimming in the stuff. Also, if you’re going for authenticity, it would behoove you to dump some Tabasco directly on the fried bits. Or better yet, my favorite, Crystal hot sauce, which is made mere minutes from the home in which I grew up. Et viola:
At the end of the day, I was terrifically pleased with the outcome. Even though the bread wasn’t perfect, the sweetbreads, perfectly fried, were just as delicate and pleasing as I’d hoped. I even got a little nostalgic for home, always a good sign. Again, for the apprehensive out there, thymus gland doesn’t have much inherent flavor — it’s prized mainly for its texture, which in this case was like a mild white fish. Further, my dining companion, Heidi, had never eaten sweetbreads in her life, and how did she react to the dish?
Not only did she devour the sandwich (“The meat was more substantial than oysters, and without the fishiness,” she noted), she ate the leftover sweetbread nuggets for lunch the following day. She didn’t even bother to reheat them, or even add them to another sandwich. Just cold, leftover fried sweetbread chunks, sprinkled with a little Parmesan cheese (her addition), straight into the mouth by hand.
Now that, friends, is a real lesson in shameless carnivorism.