Supermarkets generally sell Brussels sprouts in pint-size cardboard tubs wrapped with cellophane. Sometimes, however, specialty and farmer’s markets will offer the sprouts still attached to their stalk (Step 1), giving us a glimpse of the unique way this vegetable grows.
As the plant matures, sprouts begin studding the thick vertical stalk between the leaf petioles. They grow in rows or spirals upward from the bottom of the stem. Harvesting is usually a continuous process, lasting one to two months, however it’s now becoming fairly common for the entire stalk to be cut and marketed at once. Leaving the sprouts attached enhances their flavor and prolongs freshness.
Fresh, young sprouts are bright green, compact and small in size (about one inch in diameter). They have a sweet, delicate taste. As sprouts age, the flavor becomes strong and cabbage-like and the leaves yellow and wilt.
If the sprouts are still attached to the stem, they should be removed with a sharp knife (Step 2) just before cooking. Trim the stems (also of sprouts purchased already cut), but not too closely or the outer leaves will drop off during cooking. Carving a shallow X (Step 3) in each stem end ensures even cooking.
The stem itself is woody, but edible. Using a chef’s knife or cleaver, cut it into chunks three to four inches in length (Step 4).
Wash and drain the sprouts and stem pieces, then cook by either of the following methods:
To Boil: Place one to 1 1/2 pounds prepared sprouts in a three-quart saucepan with one inch of lightly salted boiling water. Cover and cook 12 to 15 minutes, depending on size, until the stems are tender when pierced.
To Steam: Place prepared sprouts in a steamer rack over boiling water, cover and steam 15 to 25 minutes, until tender when pierced.
Steam or boil the stem pieces in the same manner until the centers are tender. Trim away the tough outer layer (Step 5) and slice or mash the pulp and serve hot with butter.
The sprouts are typically served hot with melted butter or cream sauce. Often they are combined with chestnuts. Chilled sprouts may be used as a crudite for dips or marinated in vinaigrette and served as a salad.