One of the many idiosyncrasies of the Australian/English/American composer and pianist Percy Grainger was that when composing, he eschewed the traditional Italian directions on his scores (“allegro”, “rallentando” etc), in favour of English (“fast”, “slow off” etc). This looks weird the first time one sees a Grainger score but really it makes quite a lot of sense. If you’re a native English speaker it does seem a bit odd to go out of your way to express something in Italian when there’s a perfectly good English word for it, so good on him.
Now if only English speaking restaurateurs and chefs could do the same thing on their menus, for the very simple reason that more people are going to understand a menu if you use the English word than the French one (and there normally is a perfectly satisfactory English word). I’m not talking about finding new words for “soufflé” or “mousse” because obviously French cuisine has been highly influential and the frogs simply invented some dishes that we didn’t have words for and we have just adopted them. But there’s simply no denying that “au gratin” simply means “grilled” and “brochette” means “skewer”. The main reason why I would prefer to see more English words on menus is because people feel embarrassed when they don’t know what they mean, and, being English, don’t ask half the time. This can lead to disaster when guests simply ignore the word entirely and end up very disappointed when their “crab and king prawn velouté” turns out to be a soup and not the regal platter of seafood they had conjoured up in their mind once they ignored the difficult foreign word.
Hence we have today a kohlrabi soup with sweetbread fritters rather than a kohlrabi velouté with sweetbread beignets, which I have no doubt is what the dish would be called if I were a contestant on MasterChef. This particular dish is inspired by (or copied from, depending on your level of cynicism) a superb dish that I ate at the Restaurant Anna Sacher in Vienna back in June. My friend Mikey was passing through and I acceded to his not unreasonable request to fly in from London to join him for dinner.
Austrian cuisine doesn’t immediately spring to mind as one of the world’s greatest, but they do have one ace up their hole – the schnitzel. So by ensuring that every one of the 7 courses on the restaurant’s tasting menu contained at least one crumbed and deep-fried morsel, they managed to keep the interest up when it might otherwise have trailed off. If I recall correctly, their kohlrabi soup came with a deep fried chicken wing. Fine, but being an offal lover, I take every opportunity to do something a bit out of the ordinary, and I think these crunchy sweetbread fritters with their creamy interior make a perfect match for the velvety texture of the soup. If you are a doubter of kohlrabi’s virtues (if indeed you have heard of this strange vegetable at all), I hope this recipe will persuade you of them. The thing certainly looks a bit weird, but its unusual flavour (somewhere between cabbage, turnip, and radish, if you ask me) more than makes up for it. At some stage, do try kohlrabi very thinly sliced and eaten raw or in a salad – it is surprisingly crisp and refreshing.
750g kohlrabi (weight after peeling). I got this yield from 3 heads of kohlrabi. Kohlrabi can be difficult to find but any decent green grocer will easily be able to order it in for you.
2 medium onions
1.2L chicken or vegetable stock, preferably home-made
100mL double cream
400g lamb’s sweetbreads (you may need to order these in advance from your butcher)
1 hen’s egg
White breadcrumbs. Simply make these by whizzing up some day-old white bread in a food processor. In an emergency, you can buy breadcrumbs in packets.
Salt and pepper
- Soak the sweetbreads in cold water for about 3 hours, changing the water several times.
- Simmer the sweetbreads in water for about 5 minutes. Drain.
- When cool, trim the sweetbreads, removing any gristle, horny bits, plumbing and so forth, just leaving the white creamy bits. Try not to remove the membrane if possible.
- Cut into bite-sized nuggets.
- Peel and dice the onion finely. Cut the root and top off the leek, leaving just the white and light green part. Slice lengthways and wash thoroughly to remove any grit. Then slice finely.
- Remove the leaves from the kohlrabi (if it came with them. Don’t throw them away, use them in a salad). Peel. This can be tricky as this vegetable has a very tough skin. You will have more success with a knife than a vegetable peeler. With a heavy knife slice the top and bottom off the kohlrabi to give it flat ends and then remove the skin by slicing downwards following the skin around the outside. Chop into medium dice.
- Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan or flameproof casserole over medium heat. Soften the leek and onion until translucent. Add the potato and kohlrabi and soften for about 5 minutes, stirring often.
- Add the stock. Add salt and pepper to taste. Bring to the boil and simmer until the vegetables are very soft. Kohlrabi is a very tough vegetable – depending on how finely you have chopped it this process can take 30-60 mins.
- When the vegetables are very soft, whizz the soup up using a blender or food processor until it is UTTERLY SMOOTH. Be patient.
- Add the cream and blend again to combine. Adjust seasoning if necessary.
- Crack the egg into a bowl and whisk lightly. Spread out the breadcrumbs on a plate.
- Dry the sweetbreads. Dip each nugget in the egg and then roll in breadcrumbs. Set aside.
- Fill a heavy saucepan with vegetable oil to a depth of about 8-10 cm (or if you have a deep fryer, use that). Heat the oil to 180C – a cooking thermometer is very useful for accuracy here.
- Lay the sweetbreads gently in the oil and fry for 2-3 minutes or until the coating is golden brown.
- To serve, ladle the soup into bowls and serve the sweetbread fritters on the side. For a vegetarian alternative, make the soup with vegetable stock and omit the fritters. A demi-tasse or shot glass of soup with a single fritter on the side makes an elegant amuse bouche for a competitive dinner party. I’m not sure we have a word for that in English. Suggestions below please.