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Sprouting Up

Bring out the fresh, nutty flavor of Brussels sprouts by roasting, braising, or sautéing

Fine Cooking Issue 89
Photos: Scott Phillips
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No one is indifferent about Brussels sprouts—people either love them or hate them. Those in the “hate ’em” camp undoubtedly adopted that attitude after eating overcooked, cabbagy versions during childhood. (I’ve tasted a few sprouts that way myself, so I can’t blame the haters.) A subset of non-sprout-lovers has had the opposite problem—undercooked Brussels sprouts. I’ve noticed that lots of chefs focus too much on the sprouts’ leaves and lovely color and not enough on cooking them all the way through.

So the problem with Brussels sprouts is, paradoxically, overcooking and undercooking. Which is understandable, because a nice fresh sprout is a tight little ball of densely layered leaves. With most cooking methods, the outer layers will indeed be overcooked by the time the heart is tender.

The trick to cooking sprouts perfectly is to deal with their density. To maximize their nuttiness and downplay their membership in the cabbage clan, it’s best to cut sprouts into the size and shape that works best with your cooking method. Cutting the sprouts also lets them better integrate other flavors; great matches include butter, nuts, onions, shallots, bacon, fresh herbs, and citrus.

No matter how you decide to cut, cook, and flavor your sprouts, they’ll need their ends trimmed first with a sharp paring knife. Then be sure to pull off any tough-looking, damaged, or yellow leaves to expose the prettier surface below.

Roast

Quarters are best for roasting. The oven’s heat penetrates the quarters well; plus, they have a lot of surface area to come in contact with the roasting pan, so they get browned for deeper flavor.

Selecting and storing sprouts

Brussels sprouts are a cool-weather vegetable, growing best in areas with sunny days and cool, foggy nights. Sprouts may get a bad rap in some quarters, but growers certainly think of sprouts as a noble vegetable, giving them names like Valiant and Prince Marvel (though I also found a variety called Bubbles). The best specimens have seen some frost, which intensifies their sweetness. Look for sprouts from early fall through spring, and choose tight heads with little decay or yellowing, though most sprouts will have a few outer leaves that aren’t perfect. You’ll often see sprouts whose outer leaves have been munched by insects, but that doesn’t seem to affect the quality of the inner sprout. Sprouts that are loose and ruffly have most likely been grown in too much heat. Their flavor won’t be as intensely sweet and nutty, and their leaves will dry out more quickly, so those aren’t your best choice.
If you’re lucky, you can find the whole stalk, which is gorgeous in a sculptural way but a pain to store once you get it home. I often buy them on the stalk at the farmers’ market and then admire them on the counter for a while before I cut off the sprouts and put them in a plastic bag in the crisper drawer. I’ve had good luck storing sprouts in the fridge for up to a couple of weeks; keep them in the coldest part and be sure they’re not too moist or they’ll get moldy. The longer they’re stored, the more the outer leaves will yellow, so just peel them off before cooking.

Sauté

Shredding is perfect for a quick, high-heat sauté. This cutting method gives you the “leafiest” texture because most of the shreds aren’t attached to the core, so they can separate and fluff up.

Braise

Slicing is great for braising. The liquid surrounds the sprouts and cooks them evenly and relatively quickly, and the flavors of the braising liquid and other ingredients integrate deliciously with the slices.

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