jude's culinary journey

An (unlikely) ode to Brussels sprouts

By JUDE WATERSTON
Posted 11/25/20

I did not eat a Brussels sprout until I was well into my fifth decade. Or I did, badly prepared, by which I mean steamed or boiled, then rolled around in a pat of butter and served on the mushy side, …

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jude's culinary journey

An (unlikely) ode to Brussels sprouts

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I did not eat a Brussels sprout until I was well into my fifth decade. Or I did, badly prepared, by which I mean steamed or boiled, then rolled around in a pat of butter and served on the mushy side, naked and stinking vaguely of cabbage. Once was enough for this Barbie-doll-sized vegetable to fall off my radar.

In my 30s, a friend who had moved upstate suggested we prepare a Thanksgiving meal together in her large farmhouse kitchen. On Route 17B, we found a man selling trussed geese and thought that would be a novel fowl to serve in lieu of turkey. Julia Child patiently explained, in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” the routine of steaming the bird first to extract copious amounts of fat, then roasting it until it had a bronze-colored patina and juicy meat.

My friend had grown up having creamed pearl onions at Thanksgiving and that sounded fine; neither of us had ever partaken of green bean casserole and planned to keep it that way. And Julia’s red-wine-braised red cabbage sounded delectable. My friend added mashed sweet potatoes to the menu, and I offered the idea of homemade cranberry sauce and a salad of endive and ruby red grapefruit garnished with toasted, chopped walnuts. The husband walked into the kitchen and overheard us planning the meal. “Are you making Brussels sprouts?” he asked. My friend and I, without glancing at each other, simultaneously made faces indicating we would not.

When, one autumn, I was at the Union Square farmers’ market in the city and caught a glimpse of how Brussels sprouts are sold, I was shocked. They looked like some gigantic other-worldly vegetable with a hard, thick stalk out of which popped little cabbage-like growths. At the top of the plant were enormous green leaves that had no purpose I could ascertain. It appeared that a good deal of this thing was destined for the compost heap. I refrained from purchasing it, though it was touted as being high in fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. They might be nutritious, but I had yet to taste one prepared in a manner that drew me in.

Some years later, I met a friend one evening for margaritas at Tolache, a Mexican restaurant on Thompson Street, right around the corner from where I lived in the Village. We always ordered an assortment of small dishes, sides, or appetizers which helped soak up the intoxicating alcoholic drinks we so loved.

I suggested an order of yellowfin tuna ceviche and sweet plantain. We both enjoyed Toloache’s queso fundito con chrorizo, a Mexican cheese fondue with spicy ground sausage, served with little homemade flour tortillas for stuffing.

“How do you make the Brussels sprouts?” my friend inquired of the waiter. His eyes widened, as did mine, yet for different reasons. “They are fantastic!” he said with great enthusiasm. “One of the waiters gave the chef his mother’s recipe and they have been on the menu ever since. They are crunchy and crispy with a little sweetness,” he concluded. My friend looked at me expectantly. I shrugged, “Sure, why not.” I didn’t want to act like a baby about it.

The little dishes arrived one by one. The Brussels sprouts came in a bowl and had been quartered before cooking. Some of the leaves had fallen off of the buds and those had turned dark and crisp. There might have been a drizzle of balsamic vinegar or maple syrup on top because there was a hint of sweetness to the underlying vegetal flavor. Or maybe the sprouts had caramelized in the oven or skillet, which often happens to the sugar content many vegetables have. Whatever, they were addictive, and we used our fingers to scrape out the last bits clinging to the bowl. “Those were amazing, “ I said, and my friend agreed. After that, we included the Brussels sprouts, along with our other choices, every time we met at Toloache.

A couple of years passed before I encountered Brussels sprouts anywhere else. I hadn’t given them much thought until I moved upstate full-time and, one autumn, caught sight of them at the Callicoon farmers’ market. I bought an unwieldy specimen and brought it home. It was evident that each sprout had to be cut from the stalk and trimmed with a sharp paring knife. It was a good deal of work, as there must’ve been more than 40 sprouts, but I had a nice bowl of them when I was done. Now I needed a recipe!

I believe that oven-roasting almost any vegetable in a very hot oven produces an entirely different vegetable than the one you start with. It shrivels a bit, its flavor intensifies and, as noted above, the natural sugars caramelize, adding a depth of flavor that is almost mysterious. I oven-roast root vegetables, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, shallots and butternut squash. They all benefit from this method, which is why when I was ready to cook my plump, cleaned Brussels sprouts, I decided I would search for a recipe calling for roasting them. But first, rather than consulting my many cookbooks on vegetables, I decided to simply Google “how to cook Brussels sprouts.”

There were entries for sauteing, grilling, shaving them raw for a salad and baking them in a creamy, cheesy gratin. By far, most recipes I came upon were for oven-roasting them. As usual, I read three or four recipes that appealed to me, then combined and adapted them to one I can claim as my own. Sometimes I drizzle the finished sprouts with a touch of good, aged balsamic vinegar; other times I use local maple syrup bought at the farmers’ market. I like a crunchy topping of some sort, so I either throw on a handful of toasted, slivered almonds or chopped and toasted walnuts or pecans. This is how I now eat Brussels sprouts, and I eat them fairly frequently this time of year. They will be on my Thanksgiving table and I hope on yours, as well. This will be a hard-enough holiday, most likely spent differently than we ever have done so before. Perhaps you won’t be surrounded by everyone you hold dear. Maybe you’ll eat together on Zoom. At the very least, you will know for certain that there is one very delicious side dish on your table.

Oven-roasted Brussels sprouts

Serves 2 (double or triple to suit your needs)

10 ounces (about 14 nice-sized sprouts), washed, root ends and a few outer leaves discarded
1/4 pound (about 4) shallots
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher or flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup toasted slivered almonds or chopped toasted pecans or walnuts
2 teaspoons maple syrup or aged balsamic vinegar

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Cut each Brussels sprout into thirds through the root end and place in a large bowl. Do not discard any leaves that fall off the sprouts; add them to the bowl. Skin the shallots and cut each into quarters lengthwise and add to bowl. Drizzle on the olive oil and season the vegetables generously with salt and pepper. Toss to combine. Place the vegetables on a rimmed baking sheet and place in the oven. Cook for about 10 minutes. Check on vegetables and toss them around on the pan, then return to the oven. Cook an additional 5 minutes, then toss again. Turn on the broiler and place the sheet pan under it. After 2 minutes, check again to ascertain that the vegetables are browned and crispy. Remove the pan from the oven and distribute the toasted nuts on top. Drizzle with maple syrup or balsamic vinegar. Scrape into a shallow serving platter and serve immediately.

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