I don’t recall how old I was when I first encountered Brussel sprouts, but I am fairly certain the introduction took place during the holiday season. I do remember fantasizing I was a giant and the sprouts were actually full-grown heads of cabbage. A ridiculous fantasy, I know, but to this day I become that giant each time I hold a sprout in my hand and trim away the outer leaves. This makes me smile…and I am sure it makes the sprouts taste much better than what most people think.
But there’s a darker side to my Brussels sprouts memory. This one takes place in a bustling school cafeteria. I see myself waiting in the crowded line as my lunch is slopped onto the tray with individual compartments, an obvious attempt to instruct the ladies where to put each food item. I can even recall hearing a splat as the heavy mashed potatoes encroached upon the meatloaf in the center partition. And then a spoon filled with the grayish-yellow little sprouts spilled into a neighboring corner of the industrial tray. I could see a glistening of fat coating the sprouts. They looked soft and unappealing. I even caught a faint whiff of sulfur tickling my nostrils…and I probably sneezed. The apple crumble came next, but it arrived too late. The Brussel sprouts were too invasive and I felt my appetite waning.
I have thankfully recovered (mostly) from this dark memory. I most-definitely prefer the playful innocence of little me imagining the little sprouts as full-grown heads of tasty cabbage. Now, I enthusiastically imagine crispy strips of cabbage in a spicy salad with just a suggestion of crunchy and aromatic cumin seeds. I contemplate the smokiness stemming from the slightly charred outer leaves of grilled or roasted cabbage. My mind’s eye sees little bright green, halved heads of cabbage glazed with a light touch of Tuscan extra virgin olive oil and just a hint of chili that I know will tickle my throat. The ideas keep coming and seem endless. But like a flashing yellow light at a busy intersection, I approach with caution because I know if I cooked these little cabbages too much, the nightmare image from my childhood school days will reemerge…and I will probably sneeze.
Many food writers have differing opinions on how…and when sprouts first appeared in cookbooks and kitchens. But, they generally agree they made a strong impression in the European diet during the 17th and 18th centuries. Most were grown in the region that is Belgium today, and close to the capital city of Brussels – meaning there isn’t much dispute in where the name came from.
After an initial period of extreme popularity, sprouts virtually disappeared from the markets for about 100 years. They have more recently enjoyed a resurgence in popularity – especially in fine dining restaurants.
Brussels sprouts are at their peak in flavor and nutrition during the cold months – especially after the first frost of the year, which converts some of their starch to sugar. These young, frost bitten sprouts are delicious when sliced thin and eaten raw – or with just a suggestion of heat.
Look for vivid green sprouts with no obvious soft spots or yellowing on the leaf edges. The heads should be tight. There should be no sign of perforations in the leaves – this indicates an aphid infestation. The size of sprouts doesn’t really matter. Smaller sprouts taste the same as larger ones, although I would recommend trying to find the same relative size if you plan to cook them whole because this will promote even cooking.
Sprouts are simple to prepare. Trim away the outer leaves and remove the very bottom part of the stem. Don’t get too aggressive on the stem end, because this will cause too many leaves to fall off. Place the trimmed sprouts in a large container filled with cold, salted water (the water should taste a bit like the sea) and soak them for 30-60 minutes. The soaking will help remove any bugs hiding within the leaves and keep the sprouts crisp.
Keep unwashed and untrimmed sprouts in a loosely opened vegetable bag (preferably not paper or plastic). They will keep in the vegetable crisper of your refrigerator for 5-7 days. Keep in mind, the longer you keep them in storage, the more intense the Sulphur-like aromas will develop.
Brussels sprouts are versatile. They can be steamed for about 8-10 minutes, pan-steamed or quickly sautéed for 3-5 minutes or roasted halved or whole for about 15-18 minutes in a 200°C (390°F). Like all members of the cabbage family, they are delicious when paired with spices like cumin, fennel or anise – all which have the additional advantage of helping the digestive system cope with cabbage. Mustard, black pepper and chili peppers all work well to provide a bit of heat. Citrus or vinegars should be used sparingly because acidity will encourage the bitter flavors to shine. And finally, use something salty to balance the natural bitter tendencies of sprouts – salt always works to create a mouth balance against bitter ingredients.
Sprouts are exceptionally nutritious. They are filled with antioxidants, vitamin K and even omega 3 fatty acids. Some consider sprouts to be the healthiest of all cruciferous vegetables – including kale and broccoli. Brussels sprouts also contain above-average amounts of vitamin C, folate, B6, iron and lots of fiber.