Brussels sprouts combine great versatility and nutrition

November 10, 2023

One of the most curiously named vegetables popular at this time of year is the cool-weather crop called Brussels sprouts. Although ancestors of what we eat today were grown in ancient Rome, the current version is believed to have been originally cultivated in the 13th century in the region known as Flanders, a part of modern-day Belgium. These small, tightly packed heads of green leaves were named after the country’s capital city, Brussels. 

Although they may resemble miniature cabbages and they are a member of the same botanical family, Brassica, Brussels sprouts grow quite differently. Instead of the independent growth found with heads of cabbage, Brussels sprouts appear as small heads (1-2 inches in diameter) that grow outward along a center stalk. 

Occasionally you will find them offered for sale still attached to the stalk, but more likely the sprouts will have been sheared from the stalk and sold in packages or loose in a bin at the grocery. Be sure to choose the ones without blemishes, and those that are quite firm and tightly wrapped.

For those of us whose first introduction to Brussels sprouts was a mushy pile of yellowish-green leaves, the inherent flavor of the sprouts was completely lost, so you may want to try them roasted as in the recipe below. Or, if you are one of those people with the “Brussels sprouts gene,” you may dislike them because of a heightened perception of bitterness that may cause you to also react to broccoli and some beers.

Brussels sprouts have been victims of a culinary superstition. In medieval times, it was believed that evil spirits and demons lived between the leaves of the compact heads, and anyone who ingested them would become ill. Cooks would cut a cross into the base of the sprouts, which was believed to ward away the evil spirits, making the vegetable safe to eat.

Today, we can appreciate more inventive ways of serving Brussels sprouts beyond simply boiling them to bits, in addition to their nutritional value. A typical serving contains more vitamin C than an orange, and they provide key nutrients such as folic acid, vitamin B6 and beta carotene. In the recipes below are a few ways to prepare Brussels sprouts and some potentially surprising combinations of ingredients.

A few tips about cooking Brussels sprouts begin with the first step to prepping them. You’ll want to trim off the woody bottom, peel off any damaged leaves, then cut the sprout in half lengthwise. This technique will allow the center of the sprout to cook, versus leaving it whole, whereby the outer leaves will disintegrate and the inner section will remain practically raw.

The most common approach you’ll see on the internet and in food blogs is to sear them cut-side down in a heavy skillet until the surface is well browned. Then you’ll add other ingredients, seasonings and spices to finish cooking in the oven. Common companions will be olive oil for the sauté, bacon or pancetta to give a salty kick, garlic or onion for another flavor layer, and Balsamic vinegar for sweet/sharp notes.

Many recipes will incorporate cheese, including the one below that calls for crumbled feta as the backbone of a creamy sauce for the browned sprouts. And, you don’t have to cook your Brussels sprouts. Shave the sprouts on a grater or separate the leaves and toss them into a salad dressed with vinaigrette, or add some slivered Brussels sprouts to your next  batch of cole slaw. No need to worry about evil spirits.

Brussels Sprouts & Feta

1 lb Brussels sprouts
2 T butter
1 C sliced button mushrooms
1/4 C vegetable broth
1/4 t salt
1/4 t pepper
1/8 t thyme
1/4 C crumbled feta cheese

Trim the ends from the Brussels sprouts; slice in half lengthwise and discard any discolored leaves. Melt butter in a skillet over medium; arrange Brussels sprouts in a single layer, cut-side down. Cook undisturbed until browned, about 5 minutes. Add mushrooms and stir to combine. Deglaze the pan with vegetable broth; add seasonings. Cook, stirring often, until sprouts are crisp-tender and mushrooms have softened, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle with feta cheese; cover snd cook until cheese melts, about 3 to 5 minutes. Adjust seasonings to taste and serve warm. Yield: 4 servings. 

Brussels Sprouts & Gnocchi*

1 lb Brussels sprouts
1 lemon
3 T olive oil
salt & pepper
red pepper flakes
1 T olive oil
18-oz package gnocchi
1/2 t honey
4 T butter

Trim the ends from the Brussels sprouts; slice in half lengthwise and discard any discolored leaves; set aside. Use a vegetable peeler to shave strips of lemon zest; coarsely chop and set aside. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium. Arrange the sprouts, cut-side down. Sprinkle with salt and pepper; scatter with lemon zest. Cook undisturbed until browned, about 5 minutes. Stir in red pepper flakes; transfer mixture to a bowl. In the same skillet, heat 1 T olive oil over medium low and add the gnocchi. Cover and cook until golden, about 4 minutes. Drizzle with honey and add butter; season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring constantly until the butter is foaming and starting to brown, about 2 minutes. Return the Brussels sprouts to the skillet and heat until warmed through. Yield: 4 servings. *Adapted from The New York Times

Roasted Brussels Sprouts

1 lb Brussels sprouts
3 slices thick-cut bacon
1/4 C thin-sliced onion
1 minced shallot
1/4 t red pepper flakes
1/4 t pepper
1/4 t salt
3 T grated Parmesan cheese
1 T Balsamic vinegar
salt & pepper, to taste

Preheat to 450 F. Cut the stem ends from the Brussels sprouts; remove any brown outer leaves. Cut in half lengthwise; set aside. Cut the bacon into one-inch pieces. Cook over medium in a cast-iron frying pan until bacon is crisp and fat is rendered. Remove bacon to paper towel to drain; discard all but 2 T of fat. Add Brussels sprouts to pan and toss with reserved bacon fat to coat. Arrange them cut-side down and scatter with onion, shallot and red pepper. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place pan in the oven and roast until faces have developed a good char, about 6 to 8 minutes. Flip the sprouts and cook until tender, about 8 minutes. Transfer contents of the pan to a serving bowl; add cooked bacon, Balsamic vinegar and Parmesan cheese. Toss to combine; adjust seasonings with salt and pepper. Serve hot. Yield: 4 servings.


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