Good Life

Eats & drinks: Don’t doubt Brussels sprouts

Brussels sprouts are low in calories and high in vitamins.
Brussels sprouts are low in calories and high in vitamins. AP photo

The following article ran in November 2008 when Penn State’s nutrition department was graced with the dynamic John Beard, a distinguished professor, who died suddenly in February 2009. He is missed today. The recipe, courtesy of Joanne Green, is one that has become a family favorite in spite of being hilariously labor intensive. It is worth it!

Part of the fun of being in the nutrition department at Penn State is that many of the extracurricular departmental activities are centered on food, like the recent farewell party for a longtime office anchorwoman. While bidding goodbye, we were snacking away, facing rather substantial-sized pieces of a dense raspberry lemon cake with a thick, brightly colored buttercream.

For no apparent reason except perhaps to transcend the calories, the conversation on either side of me turned to Brussels sprouts. John Beard mentioned the Brussels sprouts in his garden, and their glorious aspect, while Joanne Green countered that she had the best-ever recipe for this much maligned vegetable. If you are eating cake, but thinking about Brussels sprouts, do the calories still count?

In a country where potatoes, peas, green beans and carrots reign supreme, it is easy to never encounter this vegetable that looks like a miniature cabbage. And often, close encounters will be drearily overcooked, stodgy and sulfurous little sponge balls. The only vegetable named after a European capital is worthy of much respect; it just needs to be treated properly.

Cool weather and a touch of frost improve the flavor of sprouts, so they are often used at holiday tables, especially in England and Canada. One of the last remaining plants in the garden, sprouts can be harvested after frost has killed the tender perennials and they have been removed. The plant is startling to see standing solo, gem-like cabbages spiraling up a thick stalk, topped with a lion’s mane of leaves so heavy that it can force the stalk into a recumbent position.

Brussels sprouts, Brassica oleracea bullata gemmifera, are descendents of the wild cabbage native to the Mediterranean seaboard, where the thick, succulent stalk mutated into a miraculous variety of related plants — broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, turnip. These plants are all cruciferous vegetables, meaning the seedling that first sprouts in the spring and the petals of the flowers that they bear are in the shape of a cross. The entire family fights cancer and has been proven especially beneficial to cancers of the digestive tract. High in vitamins, especially C and A, the sprouts are low in calories (about 39 per serving) and high in minerals and fiber.

The first documented drawing of the Brussels sprout variant was dated 1587 and produced in Belgium, though the plant was cultivated in northern Europe in the fifth century. After World War I, Brussels sprouts became a popular vegetable in Europe and in the 1920s they were planted in large quantities in California along the central coast. The stalk of the plant grows from 2 to 4 feet high and the sprouts are actually small, numerous lateral buds along the main stem. Each plant yields about 80 to 100 sprouts per stem (about 2 to 2  1/2  pounds), with the buds at the bottom maturing first.

Like all cruciferous vegetables, long cooking causes odorous sulfur compounds to develop, so brief cooking is desirable. Many chefs score the bottom stem of the sprout to even out the cooking time, which especially helps with larger sprouts. They can be steamed just until tender and then tossed with butter or olive oil and garlic, salt and pepper. They can also be marinated after steaming and served as a salad.

But by far the most luxurious way to enjoy Brussels sprouts is to use Joanne Green’s recipe that came via her brother Jim Balmer and originated with Alice Waters. What is extraordinary about the recipe, aside from the amount of effort that it is to prepare by separating the leaves of each little sprout, is that the texture is as light and fluffy as a bowl of flower petals, which, essentially, it is.

Liberate yourself from the tyranny of the common vegetables and experiment with a continental cousin; just treat it right.

Joanne Green’s Brussels Sprouts Extraordinaire

Serves 6

One pound perfect, loosely woven (if available) Brussels sprouts, rinsed and defoliated

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 slices bacon, finely minced

 1/2 cup finely minced carrot

1/2 cup finely minced celery

1/2 cup finely minced onion

1/3 cup water

Freshly ground black pepper

1-2 teaspoons of white wine vinegar

Prepare the sprouts by coring each one and gently pulling the leaves apart. Heat the olive oil in a large pot and add the bacon and sauté until the fat is rendered and the bacon starts to get crisp. Add the minced carrot, celery and onion and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the Brussels sprout leaves and the water and cook, stirring frequently for just a few minutes until the exterior leaves turn bright green and the paler interior leaves are tender. Season with the black pepper and vinegar. Serve.