A Fresh Look at Brussels Sprouts

December 15, 2012

Whoever thought that Brussels Sprouts would be at the height of culinary fashion? Certainly not me. And yet the vegetable that most of us loathed when we were children now seems downright delicious. It’s not just that our tastes have matured and our childhood aversion to bitterness abated. Nor is it just that we now understand how to cook the tiny cruciferous veggies so as best to preserve their fresh, bright green color and nutty flavor. In fact, Brussels sprouts are different now than when we were kids. Scientific plant breeding advances originating in the Netherlands have resulted in reduced bitterness and improved health attributes for these once much maligned members of the brassica family—advancements which have likely done much to inspire their current renaissance.

As most of us are fortunately aware, many contemporary chefs are cooking up Brussels sprouts by the bushelful. Here in Sonoma, they can be ordered as an optional side dish from most restaurant menus (and on many as the only green vegetable alternative). I think most of us have found that if cooked JUST until tender, on the grill, under the broiler (or not at all!), they’re amazingly tasty and healthier too. Brussels sprouts are rich in vitamins A and C, high in folic acid, and rich in dietary fiber—nutritional attributes which can be diminished if cooked for too long. Like all vegetables, of course, they are also at their best when perfectly fresh.

The surest way to ensure freshness is to purchase the sprouts when still attached to their stalks. California is our nation’s top producer of this cruciferous crop–their tender leaves prefering the cool coastal climes of San Mateo, Santa Cruz, and Monterey counties–so the sprout-laden stalks can be quite easy to find. Although their season runs from June through January, we often don’t start seeing full stalks of Brussels sprouts in Farmers’ markets and our local grocers until November. I know some cooks that like to grill the stalks whole. They snap off the stems, brush the sprouts with flavored olive oil, then place the entire stalk on a hot grill, turning until the tiny cabbages are lightly browned and tender. The whole sprouts are cut from the stalks and served with a squeeze of lemon and, perhaps, a grating of Pecorino or Romano. The resulting flavor is something like grilled radicchio.

The small tender leaves are also frequently separated from the head to be used on their own, either fried and salted for “chips,” or added to cold-weather pastas, soups, or as a topping for pizza. I separate the leaves by trimming the base of each cabbage, pulling away the leaves, trimming and pulling again, until I reach the tightly clustered pale green interior.

The fresh leaves contribute bright, mildly bitter, flavor and pleasing crunch to most dishes. Charring the leaves (or cut sprouts) before incorporating them into recipes mellows most of their bitterness, lending them a nutty, almost sweet, flavor. I usually halve and quickly sauté them with olive oil in a hot pan, or toss the leaves lightly in oil then cook them in a very hot oven until slightly charred. 

Whether enjoyed cooked or raw, my favorite Brussels sprout dishes are frequently the least complicated ones. Last December, I had a wonderfully simple salad of shaved sprouts at Michael Chiarello’s Bottega Ristorante in Yountville. It was similar to slaw, but uniquely more refined. He topped a small mound of shaved sprouts with grated egg and a sprinkling of well-toasted almonds, then finished it with a mellow but lemony citrus vinaigrette.  This recipe is my interpretation of his salad. Cut the sprouts into the thinnest slices possible using a food processor with a thin slicing disk, or shave them  (very carefully!) on a mandoline.

If you use a mandoline, leave the stem long enough to hold onto, then rotate each sprout as you shred it to capture as much of the green leaves as possible. Discard the inner white portions of the sprouts or set them aside for another use.

Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad with Toasted Almonds and Citrus Vinaigrette

1 lb large Brussels sprouts, shaved

4 hard-boiled eggs, grated

6 tablespoons finely chopped toasted blanched almonds

Citrus Vinaigrette

2 teaspoons finely minced shallot

1 teaspoon minced lemon zest

1/3 cup fresh orange juice

2½ tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, or as needed

Divide the shaved Brussels sprouts among 4 to 6 individual serving dishes. Sprinkle each serving equally with the egg and the chopped almonds.

In a cup, combine the shallot, lemon zest, orange juice and lemon juice. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, whisking constantly. Taste, and adjust the amount of oil if needed. Pour an equal amount of the dressing over each salad, and serve.

Makes 4 - 6 servings


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