Brussels sprouts may be one of the most loved and most hated vegetables. I'm in the love camp, but I've met a number of people who abhor them. And I'm proud to say I've won a number of those people over.
Brussels sprouts don't differ much from any other vegetable in that they just need a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Here's where they do differ. Do them wrong and they turn into cantankerous curmudgeons prepared to make a stink. Cruciferous veggies, including cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, are the skunks of the vegetable world. They spook easily. Press their panic button - that is, damage their cell walls - and they are equipped to unleash chemical warfare, on insects, on rodents and, yes, on you. In fact, according to Harold McGee (author of On Food and Cooking), the defense system of cruciferous vegetables inspired the creation of manmade mustard gas for World War I.
Glucosinolates are the compounds that make up this defense system, and they are similar, but not all the same, across cruciferous vegetables. Some of these compounds have potent and bitter qualities, and they are highest in young, developing tissue - i.e., the tender core of a Brussels sprout.
If you cut the Brussels sprouts in half, according to McGee, and cook them in a large quantity of boiling water, some of those potent compounds will leach into the water. Blanching and shocking does the same thing. A note of caution: Avoid overcooking, which leads to the transformation of the sulfur compounds into a different chemical goodie bag responsible for the irreparably foul odor of unhappy cabbage.
The Brussels sprouts I took home from the Saturday market were from Jones Valley Farm, a small-scale organic vegetable farm near Spring Green that also specializes in old-world varieties. I've always thought their stand was eye candy for the foodie - but despite the heirloom squashes and other beauties on display, I could not resist the basket of pugnacious sprout heads peeping back at me.
Owner Mike Martin says that when it comes to selecting Brussels sprouts, "It's all about the firmness. And look closely to see if there's any mold. That seems to be an issue here in Wisconsin." Also check for wormholes. If you do find worms, try a saltwater soak.
To prepare Brussels sprouts, take the stem ends off with a paring knife and remove old or damaged leaves. If the heads are firm, the process shouldn't be too difficult.
My favorite way to serve Brussels sprouts is to halve them, blanch them in salted, boiling water for a few minutes until they are bright green, shock them in ice water, and then dry them before hard-searing them and kissing them with a bit of balsamic vinegar. Pancetta or bacon is a delicious addition.
Given that the Jones Valley farm is a "one-and-a-half person operation," time is often limited at home, and Martin says his family enjoys a simple preparation: Simmer the Brussels sprouts for 5-8 minutes and serve with lemon, butter, salt and pepper. Or, when time allows, opt for the family's favorite recipe below. Try it instead of a tired green-bean casserole this holiday.
Brussels Sprouts with Almonds
- 3 cups Brussels sprouts
- 3 tablespoons sour cream
- 2 tablespoons chopped almonds
- 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Prep Brussels sprouts (see above) and simmer for 5-8 minutes. Meanwhile, gently heat remaining ingredients in a separate pan. Stir in warm sprouts.