In Defense of the Brussels Sprout

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You don't need to eat them with bacon--though they're good with that, too: This leafy vegetable is just as delicious steamed or roasted, sliced up, and added to a salad of sturdy greens.

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Brussels sprouts with bacon is hardly a new idea, but the combination has taken off lately. The pair has become a menu meme, a darling of online recipe searches and food television programming. Given the recent spike in all-things bacon, I suppose this was inevitable. But the pairing has gotten popular enough to necessitate a reminder that it's possible to eat Brussels sprouts without bacon as well. Those green brassica balls go effortlessly and deliciously, for example, in that most vegetarian of dishes: the leafy salad.

Of course, one need not choose between pork belly and raw greens. The two have shared many a plate, and it probably won't be long until bacon grease vinaigrette becomes the next "it" salad dressing. However you like to prepare your sprouts, the fundamentals are the same. And the foundation of most successful Brussels sprout dishes is that the sprouts are cut in half.

Cutting Brussels sprouts in half multiplies the ratio of surface area to volume, which is key when it comes to holding sauce. The many layers of tightly wrapped leaves exposed by a halved Brussels sprout can hold a surprising amount of flavoring. This is crucial, because Brussels sprouts have a strong flavor of their own, and the more sauce you can balance against it the better. You can cut beyond half if you wish, but it isn't necessary. If you're going to chop them finely you might as well use cabbage.

However great they are to eat, growing Brussels sprouts is a grind. They take a long time to mature, and don't produce much poundage per plant.

If the sprout is not sliced at least once, the ratio of surface area to volume is not at all conducive to holding sauce. Additionally, the leaves form an almost impermeable barrier that repels sauce or dressing like water off a freshly waxed car. The sauce has no access to the sphere's inner folds, and can only wait helplessly on the sidelines while a flavor foul is committed in your mouth. Unless, of course, you like the taste of full-on, unadulterated Brussels sprouts. But raw sprouts are too strong for most palates, so they generally need to be cooked before you toss them in a greasy pan or a salad bowl.

My two favorite ways of cooking Brussels sprouts are roasting and steaming. Roasting gives them a weathered taste and feel. The dry heat cultivates extra flavor as the outer leaves develop a brown crisp. Steaming sprouts preserves a certain clean, bright innocence in them, the better to deflower with bacon grease; ranch dressing; or a light mix of olive oil, salt, and vinegar.

However great they are to eat, growing Brussels sprouts is a grind. They take a long time to mature, and don't produce much poundage per plant. That's why they're expensive, and why each sprout should be groomed like the treasure it is. Trim the cut end at the bottom of each sprout to create a new, non-browned end, and pull off the outer leaf or two if they're yellow, dirty, shriveled, or otherwise tainted. What remains are densely-packed layers of green and pre-green yellow.

In the oven, I roast my cut sprouts at 350, sprinkled with olive oil and tossed with carrot coins or slices of winter squash. Stir often and cook for about half an hour, or until the first signs of browning. Steamed, they only need five to 10 minutes -- depending on the sprouts' thickness -- until they soften all the way through but retain the rich green glow of spring grass.

Whether you steam or roast is entirely dependent on the final dish you have in mind. If you plan to fry Brussels sprouts in bacon grease, a quick steaming is way less trouble. For salad, the rough, rich flavors of roasted sprouts add bold contrast to the leafy greens. If cooking Brussels sprouts with other vegetables, just make sure everything is cut to a size that allows them to cook at the same rate. Both carrots and squash cut to Brussels-sprout size will take about the same time or a few minutes longer.

To accompany Brussels sprouts in a salad, I go for sturdy greens like romaine lettuce or endive, and a dressing of equal parts olive oil, cider vinegar, and soy sauce. Some or all of the cider vinegar can be replaced by balsamic if you prefer. Just remember, we don't have to put balsamic on everything -- it's not the new bacon.

One way to liven up a winter salad is with seasonal fruit. Even if you don't live anywhere near the citrus orchards of Florida, Arizona, or California, you can eat seasonally, if not locally, in winter. Chunks of orange or grapefruit add nice acidic sweetness to a Brussels sprouts salad, as do pomegranate seeds.

And about that bacon vinaigrette. Any salad can be made omnivore-friendly by preparing the Brussels sprouts with bacon prior to adding them to the salad.

Start by chopping the bacon and putting it in a pan, perhaps with a little olive oil if the bacon isn't super-fatty. While it's cooking you can also add other red meats like beef or venison and let it all brown together. When the bacon and meat is crispy to your liking, add the pre-cooked sprouts, along with any other veggies you may have cooked them with. Some people like their sprouts lightly cooked, others like them "cooked senseless," as advice columnist Amy Alkon advised me to do. When the sprouts are done, add some minced garlic. Stir fry for a minute, deglaze with a shot of bourbon if you have it, and turn off the heat. (That bourbon shot is a secret trick, by the way. From hunting camp. Share it wisely.)

Season with black pepper and hot sauce, and add the above dressing of vinegar, soy sauce, and olive oil. Toss the sprouts to maximize their uptake of dressing. Add the meaty, greasy sprouts to your salad, or pop them straight into your mouth.

After hanging on their stalks like bare knuckles in farm fields through late autumn, Brussels sprouts can be stored all through the winter under proper conditions, waiting to offer a refreshing bolt of green when you need it most.

Image: Gayvoronskaya_yana/Shutterstock.

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Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column that has appeared in more than 50 newspapers in 21 states. Learn more at flashinthepan.net.

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