Thursday, November 8, 2012

In Praise of Brussels Sprouts

I’ve never met a vegetable that I didn’t like. Even the lowliest of peasant fare. In fact, one of my favorites is the much maligned Brussels sprout. With the first hint of fall, I crave this humble vegetable. Maybe it has something to do with my own peasant roots on my father’s Irish side of the family, often in conflict with the Polish nobility on my mother’s side. According to family lore, we're descendents of Napoleon and his Polish mistress the Countess Marie Walewska, and the son they had together (hence my affinity for France and my taste for haute cuisine perhaps?). 

Marie Walewska

In a certain way, though, Brussels sprouts satisfy both sides of myself, since it can be dressed up as a side dish accompanying a fine piece of fish—which I happened to have last weekend at one of our best local restaurants—or roasted with a few other basic ingredients to make a rustic fall meal.

The first half of November is often one of the dreariest times of year in Vermont: gray afternoons, growing shorter by the day, and no real snow yet to speak of. Summer is long gone, with just a couple plants remaining in my frost-bitten garden. Brussels sprouts are one of the few still hanging on. 

They’re actually best when they’re harvested following a hard frost, since the chill brings out their sweetness. The same goes for kale, another die-hard and favorite of mine (I have a weakness for all things Brassica). Harvesting these two hardy vegetables in early November is one of life’s simple pleasures. 

Brussels sprouts are especially fun to gather. Since they grow as buds on the plant’s thick stalk, they easily break off with a satisfying snap. 

I’ve even harvested them well into December, but by then I’m usually kneeling in snow and my fingers are freezing, so that takes away from the fun. 

A visually interesting plant, Brussels sprouts are crowned by what looks like a loose head of cabbage. 

I usually plant a half dozen seedlings in the spring, giving them plenty of room to spread out, and they provide me with an ample amount of fresh sprouts in the fall to satisfy my appetite.

Despite my fondness for Brussels sprouts, Chris and Isabel will have nothing to do with them, and Faye is lukewarm. Ah well, it’s their loss. The reason that Chris doesn’t care for them is not unusual: overcooked and mushy, they were forced on him as a child, their bitterness disguised by an overly generous amount of salt or a heavy cream sauce. Blech. Recently, though, Brussels sprouts have been "rediscovered" and are now something of a darling among foodies.

My favorite method is roasting them, although Chris hasn’t been won over yet. Roasting’s dry heat crisps the outside leaves, caramelizing the sprouts and bringing out their nutty sweetness. It also dispels that off-putting cabbagey taste, which is heightened when they’re steamed or boiled, as they commonly are.

Preparing them is easy. I just give them a quick rinse and trim the stem end. Then I peel off any discolored outer leaves and either cut them in half or quarter them, depending on their size. I like to roast them with thinly sliced shallots and some peeled hazelnuts. Add a little salt and pepper, and a sprinkling of your favorite herb (I use thyme), and then toss them with some olive oil. It’s important not to overcrowd the dish so they don’t steam. 

Roast them for about forty minutes, and what you pull out of the oven is a vegetable transformed.

I can make a meal on these Brussels sprouts, and often have.

In case you need more convincing, they’re incredibly healthy in a number of ways. And, if you have a weakness for cheese, chocolate, and rich meats like I do, they provide an excellent counterbalance. For a real treat, however, try cooking Brussels sprouts with bacon. This little trick I learned in France, and the combination is perfectly delicieux. Instead of the hazelnuts, I add pieces of bacon, and instead of olive oil, I toss them in the bacon juices (that’s right, the juices). 
I use a high quality, all natural bacon (the closest thing I can find to French lardons) and lightly pan fry it first to render those delicious juices. 

Then I add the pieces of bacon to the Brussels sprouts and drizzle the juices over the whole thing before putting it in the oven. Even this version hasn’t yet won Chris over to Brussels sprouts, but trust me, it is indeed delicieux.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Hazelnuts

2 lbs Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved (preferably fresh)
¾ cup peeled hazelnuts
1 shallot, thinly sliced
½ t dried thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
3 T olive oil

Preheat oven to 425° F on roast. Combine the Brussels sprouts, hazelnuts, and sliced shallot in a shallow dish. Sprinkle with thyme, salt, and pepper, and then drizzle with olive oil. Stir well to distribute the oil and arrange sprouts so they’re in a single layer, with a little space between them. Roast for 40 minutes, stirring once or twice to evenly brown them. Serves 8 as a side.

(Eight oz. of bacon cut into small pieces can replace the hazelnuts and olive oil. Lightly pan fry the bacon first, and combine with the Brussels sprouts. Pour juices over sprouts and stir well before roasting.)


  1. I like to roast them with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper. Brussels sprouts are now one of my favorite vegetables!

    1. I've been meaning to try them with balsamic vinegar, Erin. Will have to do that next time I make them!