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Better Brussels Sprouts

Spinach, broccoli and Brussels sprouts. Somewhere a group of hacks decided that we were supposed to loathe them and it stuck. For decades, children (and an occasional president) have been spitting out spinach, announcing they hate broccoli and offering Brussels sprouts to the family dog in ads, film and in the case of the elder Bush, in press conferences. Spinach and broccoli have managed to shake off the mantle of most detested vegetable to the point of becoming parts of fast food menus at McDonald’s and Wendy’s, but sadly, not Brussels sprouts.

If you don’t like Brussels sprouts, chances are the ones you’ve had were either under ripe or over cooked.

Where frost is the end for most vegetables, it is just the beginning for Brussels sprouts. Cold weather causes the plant to produce more sugars to protect itself. Eat sprouts before they’ve had a chance to run their natural antifreeze, and the experience, literally, won’t be sweet. So, when you’re buying sprouts, make sure they come from places that actually get cold. No frost equals no sweet flavor. As a rule, the best sprouts tend to be less than one-and-a-half inches in diameter. Buying them off the stalk, while cheaper for shippers, removes the sprouts from their sugar source. So buying local really is the way to go with Brussels sprouts. Several area farms still have Brussels sprouts at the holiday market inside Lincoln Square Village on Saturday mornings. You can also find locally grown Brussels sprouts at Common Ground Food Co-op.

When it comes to cooking Brussels sprouts, less is more. Over cooking them renders them overly strong, destroying both their sweetness and their cancer-fighting properties. The leaves cook faster than the core, so you are supposed to cut Brussels sprouts in half or cut an X in the bottom of the stem. I frequently leave all but the largest ones whole and skip the X. Whichever option you choose, you will still need to trim the base of the sprout and remove any of the loose bottom leaves. Brussels sprouts can be roasted, grilled or thinly sliced for salads. If you are unsure about giving them a try, it’s probably best to steam or blanch them. If you have a variety of sizes, blanching them is probably the easiest way to go, since smaller sprouts will cook more rapidly than larger ones. Blanching is also the way to go if you want to freeze sprouts for later in the winter.

You’ll need about a gallon of water to blanch a pound of sprouts. Bring it to a boil. Add the largest sprouts first, then add the medium ones a minute later and the smallest ones a minute after that. When the largest ones have boiled for five minutes, or when you can insert a knife tip into one without meeting resistance, drain them. If you won’t be finishing the sprouts right away, or if you want to freeze them, cool them in an ice water bath. To freeze sprouts, drain and place them in a single layer in a plastic freezer bag.

You can finish Brussels sprouts in a variety of ways. Sautéing them in two tablespoons of butter is easy and hard to beat, especially if you let the butter get a little brown. But, if you’re up for gilding the lily, finish them with some bacon and shallots. Moore Family Farm and Triple S Farm both produce some truly wonderful local bacon. You need not have whole strips for this recipe, so feel free to use bacon ends (which are cheaper). Blue Moon Farm produces excellent shallots. Look for both at Common Ground Food Co-op.

Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Shallots

1 pound of Brussels sprouts blanched and drained (see directions above)
1 tablespoon olive oil (if using bacon ends which are leaner)
2 ounces diced bacon
1/2 tablespoon minced shallot (or onion soaked in water for 20 minutes)
salt and pepper to taste

Heat a heavy 10-inch or larger skillet (cast iron is great for this). Add olive oil if using bacon ends. Add bacon and cook until nearly crisp. Remove all but 2 tablespoons of fat, add shallots and sauté. When shallots become translucent, add sprouts and warm through. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.

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