Edible Seasonals: Brussels Sprouts
Is there a vegetable more despised, condemned for its lack of subtlety, its imposing perfume? Brussels sprouts are like cilantro. People don’t have mixed feelings about them. They either love them or hate them.
Though smaller than their cousin the head cabbage, brussels sprouts pose an equal threat of overwhelming with their off-putting flavor and slimy texture. Pile on a host of indignities from being picked too large (they should be no larger than a small plum), stored too long (get them on the trunk, at the farmers’ market) and cooked to death, and you get a vegetable that’s never chosen, begrudgingly accepted, and no one’s favorite. For some, the only positive thing about it is that it’s over in one hold-your-nose bite. Cabbage, however, can go on forever!
Descended from the cruciferae family, brussels sprouts closely resemble their similarly forthright siblings: cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and mustard. Cabbage is native to the Mediterranean region where it has been cultivated for more than 2,500 years. When brussels sprouts were first cultivated is up for debate—pick a date between the 5th and 17th centuries—but they grew abundantly in and around Brussels when they became popular in Europe. French settlers brought them to New Orleans in the 19th century. Today, all but two percent of the crop is grown on the mild California coast.
Cruciferae (meaning “cross-bearing”) are distinguished by the four petals of their flowers, which are reminiscent of a cross. In the case of brussels sprouts, they are immature buds that cling to a large stalk sporting a floppy crown of foliage, a sort of architectural whimsy à la Whoville. However weird and wonderful a vision they are, nothing changes the fact that brussels sprouts require a deft hand to temper their serious and sturdy nature and stop us—intrepid and reasonable diners in every other way—from recoiling in their presence. It all comes down to proper cooking.
The direct flavor and texture of brussels sprouts shine with a little coaxing and a minimum of cooking. The key is to keep water out of the equation. Sear, braise and roast them. Cut them to enhance unexpected nuances (sweetness) and textures (crispness). When halved or thinly sliced they absorb the sauces and dressings in which they are bathed. Or preserve the integrity of the sprout as a whole by removing the core by making a v-shaped cut. Grab both sides of the half and, with your thumbs on opposite sides of the core cut, bend the sprout to spread its leaves slightly and create more area for the flavorings to cling.
When I first cozied up to brussels sprouts, I roasted them— halved, tossed with olive oil and kosher salt, face down on a hot pan in a 450-degree oven for about 45 minutes. Now I like them braised, glazed, creamed and hashed. I partner them with bacon, cream, chanterelles and mustard. Sometimes I peel each tightly curled leaf from its compact globe. A quick sauté of the leaves in brown butter bullies the sprout into becoming a kinder, gentler version of itself.
Any of these preparations would win you over to my team.
Ellen Jackson is a Portland food writer and stylist.
Brussels Sprouts & Bacon
5-6 garlic cloves, peeled and trimmed
1 cup bacon/pancetta, cut into uniform pieces 1 red onion, julienned
1-2 bay leaves
1 thyme sprig (optional)
1 lb brussels sprouts
Splash sherry vinegar
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Place a large cast-iron pan, at least 12 inches wide, over medium heat. (Andy and Bax is a great source for cast iron!) Add 1/2 cup high-quality olive oil. Heat oil and add garlic cloves. Stir with a wooden spoon and, as cloves brown and soften, gently press to break them up. When the garlic is cooked, remove and discard. Add bacon or pancetta to the pan. Turn up the heat and brown. When the pork is golden and crisp, remove and reserve.
2. Drain off all but some of the fat. Return the pan to medium heat, adding a splash more olive oil. Add the red onion. Season well with salt and pepper and stir to coat the onion in the oils and seasonings. Add bay leaf and thyme. The salt will help break down the onion and change the starches to sugar. Brown the onion, stirring often. While the onion cooks, prepare a pound of brussels sprouts by trimming off the root end and picking off a few of the outer leaves. Wash in cold water. Drain well, quarter and gather them in a bowl.
3. When the onion is caramelized, remove the bay leaf and thyme and then add the sprouts. Season with salt and pepper. (It is good style to season a dish as you go, making constant small changes.) Keep the flame on low to medium heat. Stir often. Cook this dish slowly and patiently. Add a bit of olive oil occasionally to keep the sprouts from getting too dry. When the brussels sprouts gain color and start to melt, add the pork. Add a hearty splash of good sherry vinegar and the Dijon mustard. Cook a few more minutes, adjust the seasoning, and serve.
Optional: Add 1/2 cup water or chicken stock to the pan for a juicier dish. You can also add cooked black-eyed peas and grilled pork or lamb sausage towards the end of the cooking.
Recipe by Jason Barwikowski, Chef, Clyde Common