A while back, I came across a list of good things to give up for Lent, compiled by a children’s Sunday school class. Along with drinking soda and punching siblings was something that surely resonated with everyone: eating Brussels sprouts. At that age I, too, would have gladly made the sacrifice, but not now. Nutty and sweet, these cute mini cabbages are among my favorite winter vegetables. I’m not shy about serving them to company—Brussels sprouts make a knockout side dish to almost any roasted, braised, or grilled meat—and I’m pleasantly surprised by how often the sight of them elicits cries of, “Oh, I love Brussels sprouts!”
The keys to getting that kind of response are to start with fresh, firm sprouts and to cook them properly. Any method that involves searing or browning sprouts, such as roasting, sautéing, or braising, is a good bet, as browning enhances their nuttiness. Many recipes suggest blanching sprouts as a first step to ensure that the dense buds get tender, but be aware that this step can also waterlog the sprouts, diluting their flavor.
Brussels sprouts have a flavor that’s both assertive and somewhat sweet, and therefore benefits from ingredients that add richness, acidity, or both. Classic flavor partners are bacon, ham, pancetta, or prosciutto; toasted walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, cashews, or blanched or roasted chestnuts; and balsamic, sherry, and malt vinegars or lemon juice. Butter, cream, oils, and cheese give an enriching and rounding effect, as do meat juices and stock. Olive oil and nut oils, particularly walnut or hazelnut, are delicious lubricants for sprouts.
For a change, try a different cut
No matter how you plan to cut and cook Brussels sprouts, the first step is to use a small paring knife to trim off the lower part of the stem and any tatty outer leaves.
I think sprouts are at their prettiest when left whole. To help them cook evenly when boiling or braising them, I cut a 1/4-inch-deep X into the stem end to help the liquid penetrate.
- Braised with sherry vinegar
Braise whole Brussels sprouts in chicken broth until they’re just tender. Add a good splash of sherry vinegar and some chopped dried cranberries or thinly sliced dried figs, and simmer until the liquid is reduced to a glaze.
Halved Brussels sprouts (or quartered, if large) are great in gratins, sautés, or quick braises. Roast the halves, or sear them in a skillet to enhance their nutty sweetness, as in the recipe Balsamic-Glazed Brussels Sprouts with Pancetta.
- Roasted with pancetta
Toss halved Brussels sprouts with cubes of pancetta, sea salt, pepper, and olive oil. Roast in a hot oven (400°F) until browned and tender, about 20 minutes.
For a confetti look, cut the sprouts in half lengthwise and then cut them into thin slices to create a pile of thick shavings (or, even easier, shred them in a food processor).
- Sautéed with prosciutto and pecans
Sauté strips of prosciutto in olive oil until crisp. Add sliced Brussels sprouts, sauté briefly until tender, and toss with vinegar and toasted pecans
Separated into leaves
Just cut out the tiny core of each Brussels sprout with the tip of a paring knife and pull away the individual leaves. This can be tedious but makes a lovely presentation.
- Wilted in butter and nutmeg
Cook the leaves in butter until they wilt and then season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Toss in chopped hazelnuts or walnuts.