Brussels Sprouts: The Unexpected Culinary Swan
By Dani Lind | Photo By Jim Klousia 2
All my life I’ve had a thing for the underdog. Be it the passed over toy as a little girl or the loser boyfriend as a teenager, I guess I took the ugly duckling fairy tale to heart. Now in my adulthood, I have taken the poor, rejected, locally grown vegetables under my wing—the underutilized, the newly-trendy, the formerly beloved fallen out of modern favor, or the just plain weird.
In the case of Brussels sprouts, they are a vegetable all too often cooked very wrong and, hence, tend to carry a bad rap. Who wouldn’t hate Brussels sprouts if all you’ve ever experienced were boiled, slimy, sulphurous mush-balls? To appreciate these poor, abused little sprouts, you first have to know not to over-boil them. You then need to be willing to experiment. And it helps to get them fresh from a local grower right after a nice fall frost.
Like fall-harvested carrots and overwintered parsnips and spinach, freezing temperatures cause the sugar content of Brussels sprouts to shoot up, acting as anti-freeze—what a tasty survival mechanism! Not only is this the cheapest time of year to buy Brussels sprouts, but it’s by far the tastiest. Look at your farmers market for whole stalks with their little sprouts still attached, and you’ll get to walk around feeling really cool with this bizarre, knobby, green club sticking out of your bag (please don’t use it as a weapon, no matter how tempting).
If you think those harvested stalks at the market look rad, you should see a field of Brussels sprouts at maturity. Resembling exotic, Jurassic-park-like, mini palm trees, the three- to four-foot tall plants have a single stem covered in Brussels sprout “buttons” spiraling up from its base to the umbrella-like leaves. (If you crawled around on the ground between the rows you could pretty easily pretend you’re a dinosaur.)
If you simply must have off-season sprouts, you can buy them almost year-round if you look hard enough—central California, with its perfect-for-brassicas long, cool, humid growing season produces them June through January, and Mexico picks up the slack from December through June. Personally, I like to get my fill of them during our local, frost-sweetened sprout season in October and November so that I’m not tempted by the nine dollar per pound, bitter, pale ones in March.
Timed right, Brussels sprouts will hold out in the field through many light frosts, extending the harvest for several weeks. If harvested on the stalk, they will keep in a 33 to 34 degree root cellar, basement or garage for a few weeks, depending on conditions. If plucked off the stem, keep them unwashed and untrimmed in plastic in the coldest part of your fridge (usually the bottom back shelf) for up to 5 weeks.
Like other brassicas, Brussels sprouts pack some serious nutritional punch when they’re not overcooked. They’re super high in vitamins C and K and are a good source of vitamin A, several B vitamins, iron, potassium and fiber. Eaten regularly, they have powerful anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and detoxifying properties.
To use Brussels sprouts, select green, tight buttons without yellowing leaves or bug damage. Right before use, trim the stem, peel off any imperfect leaves, and cut large sprouts in half or quarters. Boiling or steaming them for about 5 minutes is all that’s needed for bright green, fresh-tasting, slightly crisp, sweet sprouts. Steaming is better than boiling, as it preserves more nutrients. Shocking them in cold water after steaming renders them ready to toss into any number of salads. They’re quite good raw, too, when nice and fresh.
My favorite way to eat them, though, is roasting in the oven until they just start to caramelize on the outside. This really enhances their sweetness and adds flavor complexity and great texture.
Give this wrongly-accused veggie another try this season. Prepared correctly, this traditionally overcooked, stinky, slimy, ugly duckling can transform into a culinary swan. Here are some ideas to give a go:
- Stir fried: thinly slice sprouts with shallots, garlic, ginger, and hot chiles. Finish off with a splash of soy sauce, sesame oil and fresh mint or cilantro.
- Braised: sauté halved sprouts in bacon fat or butter over medium-high heat until starting to brown, pour in a bit of white wine and a handful of dried currants, turn down the heat, and cover. After a few minutes, test for texture (should be firm but not crunchy), add salt and pepper to taste, and top with toasted pecans and a drizzle of honey.
- Raw: combine individual leaves or finely shredded sprouts with mandarin sections, toasted almonds and champagne vinaigrette.
- Roasted: oil sprouts and roast until starting to caramelize. Stir in some fresh lemon juice and zest, garlic, salt, pepper and some Parmesan, Manchego, or aged Gouda cheese, return to the oven for a couple minutes, and serve.
- Pickled (see detailed recipe online): steam whole sprouts until just tender (about 5 minutes), pack in sterilized pint jars, add sliced garlic, whole cloves and sliced hot peppers to jars, cover with boiled pickling liquid, and process in a hot water or steam canner bath for 15 minutes.
Enjoy these Brussles sprouts recipes by Dani from the Fall 2011 issue. We're sure they will change your mind about this underdog veggie!