The Vegetable Everybody Hates
IT'S A SHAME THAT MOST people don't see a Brussels sprout on their plate except at Christmas dinner. During the short time they're available from local farms (which in the Hudson Valley is now), they can give you a late-season taste of green and boost your immunity. Brussels sprouts have been shown to reduce the risk of cancer, birth defects, and arthritis, while boosting your immune system, strengthening your cardiovascular system, and giving a supple glow to your skin. That's a powerful punch for such a tiny vegetable. So how come nobody likes them?
Brussels sprouts are members of the Brassica family (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower). All members of the family have suffered an image problem. But they're super rich in vitamin C, as well as vitamin K, and are a good source of folate, vitamins A and B6, fiber, and potassium. And cooked property, they're tasty too. Granted, overcooking Brussels sprouts releases sulfur compounds that produces its famous, rather unpleasant odor.
Jeff Bialis, of Bialis Farm in New Hampton, grows more than 100 varieties of vegetables in the region's rich black dirt. He has kind words about the maligned baby cabbage. "It's amazing how many of us used to hate them," he says. "They may have once been the most uncelebrated vegetable on early winter plates, but they're making a comeback."
Bialis, who runs a winter and summer CSA and sells his produce at the New York City Greenmarkets and the Goshen farmers' market, adds that this is the time of year to enjoy Brussels sprouts. "Frost makes them sweeter," he notes. "They're at their peak now."
The sprouts grow in a spiral, 20 to 40 buds on a central stalk that can reach as high as three feet. Each stalk can produce two to three pounds of sprouts. While it has roots in Belgium, Brussels sprouts are not that country's national vegetable (that honor belongs to chicory). In the United States, the majority of Brussels sprouts are grown in California; small percentages come from Washington State and New York's Long Island. About 80 percent of U.S. production is for the frozen food market. (Perhaps that's the source of the little vegetable's woes—too long on the road; too much time in the freezer.)
The sprouts are most impressive and stay freshest on their stalk. Look for firm, bright sage green heads, although some have a reddish hue. They should be free of yellow or wilted leaves, but those can be removed before cooking. When sold off-stem, look for sprouts of equal size to ensure even cooking; wash them well under running water or soak them in a bowl to remove dirt and bugs. Unwashed, untrimmed sprouts can be stored in a refrigerator crisper for up to 10 days. Sprouts freeze well: blanch them first for three to five minutes. They'll keep in the freezer for up to a year.
But the best way to enjoy Brussels sprouts is when they're fresh, steamed or blanched. Cooked properly, they will have a crisp texture and a slightly sweet taste. Cook whole; you can cut an "X" in the bottom of the stem to make sure they cook evenly through or cut larger sprouts in half. Another option, is separating the leaves altogether for a quick toss (raw) in a salad, or for a quick sautee. Any way they're cooked, adding a little fat, such as butter, good quality olive oil, cheese or bacon, amplifies their sweet, nutty flavor.
Laura Kate Morris, assistant manager at Phillies Bridge farm in Gardiner grew up not liking Brussels sprouts at all, "But now I love them," she claims. Her favored preparation is to bake them in a cast iron skillet with butter just until they're a little crisp, and then top them with some soft chevre—a combination she learned working on a goat dairy in Oregon, where goat cheese was plentiful.
The wayward little sprouts have their devotees among chefs in the valley as well. On their Thursday night "eat local" menu, the chefs at The Valley at Garrison deconstruct the sprouts and toss them with bacon. "Brussels sprouts go especially well with bacon or pancetta," says Marc Suszczynski at Harvest Cafe in New Paltz, but "for a vegetarian version, I like to toss them with a little balsamic and nuts." While at 36 Main (also in New Paltz) chef Adam Steinberg pokes fun at the standard "cabbage and potatoes" by offering Brussels sprouts and gnocchi.
Why not, a little fun. "People are so surprised when they see how they grow," Morris says. "They're not in a little cellophane box—they're a tree—like thing that looks prehistoric. They're fun to grow, and they're tasty, too."