I’ve always thought everyone should be as delighted as I am by these miniature cabbages; so cute, so tasty, so versatile, but we all know the trouble with Brussels sprouts. You had an unfortunate experience as a child. Your mother overcooked them and plopped too many mushy, grey-green balls on your plate fully expecting you to devour them with gusto. And you’ve never forgotten it. And now you’re an adult and you still won’t eat them. Well, it’s time to get over it.
Let’s address the first rule in dealing with this much maligned vegetable, a dictum that holds true for almost everything, but especially the cabbage family. Do. Not. Overcook. Period. Next, try switching up the cooking method from boiling (or even steaming) and oven roast the little darlings. Brussels sprouts have more natural sugars than you might expect, and roasting does a lovely job of caramelizing them. Flavour, flavour, flavour. Now, add some toasted nuts, buttered bread crumbs, dried cranberries, bacon, maple syrup, flavoured vinegar, shallots… you get the idea. Finely shave the raw sprouts and turn them into a unique slaw or morph them into a comforting gratin with lashings of cream and cheese.
Brussels sprouts belong to the cabbage family, with cousins like cauliflower, broccoli, turnips, kohlrabi and kale – all members of a species called Brassica oleracea. The inimitable Deborah Madison refers to the genus as the “sometimes difficult crucifers;” none are shy of robust flavour or aroma. The worst offenders are the long-boiled, or in her words, “boardinghouse cabbage.” Oven roasted at high heat, or gently cooked with cream, the feared brassicas can be magically transformed into dishes both elegant and refined.
Trim and halve 500 g (1lb) of similar-sized Brussels sprouts and toss in olive oil, Maldon salt, fresh rosemary leaves and freshly ground black pepper. Spread on a baking sheet and roast at 200 C (400 F) until browned, but still firm, about 20 minutes. Cook 4-5 strips of bacon until crisp; drain and set aside. Bring 250 ml (1 cup) of heavy cream to a simmer. Add 5-10 ml (1-2 tsp) Dijon mustard. To this mixture, add 250 ml (1 cup) grated parmesan, 250 ml (1 cup) grated gruyere, 125 ml (½ cup) aged cheddar and a good grinding of white pepper. Whisk until smooth. Liberally butter an oven-proof dish and create a layer of Brussels sprouts. Crumble the bacon and scatter over the sprouts. Pour over the cheese sauce and top with lots of buttery bread crumbs mixed with a little more parmesan cheese. Bake for 20-25 minutes at 175-200 C (350-375 F.)
Brussels sprouts are a late-season crop, requiring a mild frost to develop their distinctive nutty flavour. Like their relatives, they keep well into the winter months and are important mainstays in northern climes. It’s becoming more and more common to purchase an entire stalk at markets these days and what fun that is – just pluck off the sprouts as needed. What is even more fun is coming upon a field of commercially grown Brussels sprouts. They grow two meters (7-8 feet) tall or taller, wider at the bottom tapering to a comical floppy crown of large, cabbage-y looking leaves. It’s a sight to behold!
I find simple oven roasting is the very best way to make converts. Less chance of overcooking and smelling up the kitchen, too. Toss 500 g (about 1 pound) trimmed Brussels sprouts in olive oil, 75 ml (1/4 cup) grated parmesan, 5 ml (1 tsp) lemon zest, Maldon salt and grated fresh black pepper to taste, along with a light sprinkling of garlic powder. Spread on a baking sheet and roast at 200 C (400 F) for up to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the sprouts, until golden and dark brown around the edges. Serve with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.
Another tasty way with Brussels sprouts is as follows: Start with the requisite pound of trimmed sprouts, roasted with salt and pepper until very golden, almost burnt in places. While hot, drizzle with 15-30 ml (1-2 Tbsp) balsamic vinegar, 15 ml (1 Tbsp) liquid honey and 15 ml (1 Tbsp) olive oil and a generous pinch of hot pepper flakes. Toss and serve.
Still another, toss together 500 g (1 pound) trimmed Brussels sprouts, 45 ml (3 Tbsp) olive oil, 45 ml (3 Tbsp) maple syrup, 4-5 slices thick bacon, cut into 1.25 cm (½ inch) pieces. Season with a little salt and black pepper. Spread out on a baking sheet and roast for 30-45 minutes at 200 C (400 F.) Meanwhile, toast a handful of walnut pieces until fragrant and serve on top of the finished sprouts.
If you’re buying loose Brussels sprouts, look for hard, tightly compacted heads without blemishes. Choose sprouts all the same size for even cooking. The smaller ones have a sweeter flavour, while the larger heads taste more of cabbage and might be better suited to a gratin. If you’ve purchased an entire stalk, you have what you have. Cut larger heads in half to keep up with the smaller ones. Untrimmed sprouts will keep well for 2-3 weeks refrigerated.
Be bold, be brave and vanquish those childhood vegetable boogeymen.