A Brussels Sprouts Make-Over
Brussels sprouts are never going to win any popularity contests. They’re the weak member of the vegetable pack, the one everyone likes to pick on. Brussels sprouts are weird-looking, like miniature cabbages. Maybe that’s why they’re usually shoved away in some dark corner of the produce market. Unlike broccoli, which is also weird-looking but seems to be in your face every time you turn around, they’ll never gain acceptance merely through familiarity.
What’s more, Brussels sprouts are ugly and they smell bad.
Well, that’s not exactly accurate. To be more precise: When Brussels sprouts are overcooked, they turn olive drab and smell like sulfur.
Here’s why those unpleasant things happen. Like all cruciferous vegetables, Brussels sprouts are high in chemical compounds that, when exposed to heat for a sufficient amount of time, produce hydrogen sulfide (as a general rule, any chemical compound with the word sulfur in it is going to smell very bad).
Cabbage does it (quite famously, if you read period novels about Irish tenements in New York). Cauliflower does it. Broccoli will do it, too, if it’s cooked long enough.
The color change is related to the smell. Technically, Brussels sprouts are high in chlorophyll-b, which when heated turns into pheophytin-b. Chlorophyll-b is bright yellowish green. Pheophytin-b is not. (Chlorophyll-a, which is blue-green similarly turns to pheophytin-a.)
This change happens especially quickly when the chlorophyll is heated in the presence of an acid--and most green vegetables give off acid during the cooking process. For this reason, never cook green vegetables with the lid on; the moisture that condenses on the underside of the lid will be highly acidic and will rain back on the vegetables.
Incidentally, this is not a straight-line process. Before the color begins to degrade, it first brightens. That’s because the heating process first drives off the air within the plant cells, making the chlorophyll more apparent.
These factors are true for all cruciferous vegetables, but they’re worse for Brussels sprouts. In the first place, people don’t cook them often enough to gain the kind of experience necessary to work around their little quirks. Furthermore, because they’re such dense little cabbages, even good cooks sometimes feel the need to overcook them to tenderize them.
That’s a recipe for disaster. More than that, it’s a shame and a sin against what is one of the more interesting vegetables available in winter.
To get around it, try treating Brussels sprouts with the respect they deserve. It takes a little more care in preparation and a little more attention to detail, but the payoff will be amazing.
Begin by shopping for the smallest sprouts you can find. These will cook the fastest and have the sweetest flavor. When you’re getting them ready for cooking, be sure to remove any dark or damaged outer leaves and trim away the dark, dried-out base.
Don’t stop there, though. Cut an “X” through the base 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep, depending on the size of the sprout. This will allow the heat to penetrate to the heart of the sprout, but still hold it together enough that you don’t wind up with a lot of loose leaves.
When you cook the sprouts, never cook them more than 7 minutes during the initial heating. I prefer to steam mine and after 7 minutes, you can actually smell the change from sweet cabbage to sulfur. If you would rather blanch the sprouts in boiling water, make sure there is plenty of it, to dilute any acids given off during cooking.
Doing these simple things will give you Brussels sprouts that are sweet and complex tasting and that have a beautiful range of bright green colors, from piney dark at the outside to celadon to shining yellow at the center.
What you do with them after that is up to you, of course. They’re delicious simply dressed with olive oil and a little chopped garlic. But they also are assertive enough to hold their own in the company of more emphatic flavors. I really like to pair Brussels sprouts with smoky things like bacon. And when you’re using bacon, it’s usually a good idea to add something sharp, like vinegar, to cut the fat.
Look at it as making a he-man out of a scorned vegetable. Call it the Brussels sprout make-over.
Brussels Sprouts and Bacon
Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 15 minutes
2 pounds Brussels sprouts
3 strips bacon
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
* Trim Brussels sprouts, removing any outer leaves that are too dark or are damaged. Trim dried-out base of sprouts and cut an “X” 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep in base.
* Steam sprouts over rapidly boiling water just until tender, about 5 minutes, no longer than 7 minutes. Cool and cut into lengthwise quarters. Set aside.
* While sprouts steam, cut bacon into thin strips. Cook in skillet over medium-low heat until crisp. Raise heat to high and add red wine vinegar. Cook until vinegar loses raw smell, about 3 minutes.
* Reduce heat and add sprouts. Heat through, season to taste with salt and 1 to 2 tablespoons additional red wine vinegar if necessary. Add pine nuts, stir and serve.
6 servings. Each serving: 120 calories; 138 mg sodium; 3 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 16 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams protein; 2.34 grams fiber.
Bowl and plate from Frank McIntosh Home Store, Saks Fifth Avenue, Pasadena.
Napkin from Salutations Home, Brentwood and Pasadena.