The Kitchen Garden

Brussels Sprouts

A superstar in the vegetable world

By Jan Leitschuh

They are a seasonal Christmas holiday staple, Brussels sprouts.

You’ll find them in markets now, fresh or frozen. And despite the fact the marble-sized veggie is “trending,” you either love ’em, or you hate ’em.

If you love ’em, ’nuff said. We shall rhapsodize later.

If you dislike them, there may be a good reason — but all is not lost. You may have gotten old, over-large or overcooked sprouts. It might simply be a matter of positive exposure.

This mini-cabbages-on-a-stalk vegetable was first mentioned in the 16th century. Seems they are native to — surprise! — chilly Belgium, especially the region near the country’s capital, Brussels. World War I spread their use across Europe. Now Brussels sprouts are cultivated in Europe and the United States, where almost all commercial Brussels sprouts are grown in California. 

According to a recent NPR report, their production has quadrupled in the last decade, and the 2,500 acres devoted to the sprouts in the past has expanded to five times that. 

Were Brussels sprouts forced upon you as a child? Overcooked, the sprouts can have a stronger smell, which could lead to aversion. And apparently, as babies, the only tastes we humans favor are mother’s milk and sweet things. Our tastes only evolve over time and exposure, say scientists.

And, by adulthood, many of us just haven’t cultivated a taste for bitter foods, according to nutrition experts, who bemoan that fact — because bitter foods, like Brussels sprouts, stimulate digestion and are some of the healthiest eats on the planet. (Many bitter foods may also be poisonous and bad for us, so perhaps this innate caution has been a good thing over the course of human history.) Newer varieties, says NPR, have less bitterness than in prior decades. 

Brussels sprouts belong to the same family as such uber-healthy, cancer-fighting veggies as broccoli, radishes, kale, bok choy, cabbage, arugula and cauliflower — all slightly bitter veggies due to their health-containing compounds. 

Health experts recommend enjoying at least 3/4 of a cup of some kind, or combo, of cruciferous veggies daily, or five cups a week.

Would knowing that Brussels sprouts have an extremely high nutritional value — indeed, they are an absolute superstar among cruciferous family superstars — change the willingness to try them again? After all, say geneticists, food is information. Food, they say, switches our genes on and off, for good or ill. And crucifers are big switchers toward the “good” side of the health scale.

This famous food family contains glucosinolates, important phytonutrients that have a variety of cancer-protective substances. All cruciferous vegetables contain glucosinolates and have great health benefits for this reason. 

Recent research has brought Brussels sprouts forward into the health spotlight. For total glucosinolate content, Brussels sprouts are now known to top the list of commonly eaten cruciferous vegetables. Their total glucosinolate content is greater than the amount found in mustard greens, turnip greens, cabbage, kale, cauliflower, or broccoli. A cup of Brussels sprouts offers over 243 percent of the day’s vitamin K requirements, and 129 percent of vitamin C, plus almost a quarter of our folate.

Nearly 100 studies in PubMed (the health research database at the National Library of Medicine in Washington, D.C.) focus on Brussels sprouts. Over half of those studies involve the health benefits of this cruciferous vegetable in relationship to cancer. And besides helping our bodies detox unhelpful substances, Brussels sprouts offer powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. Thus, they also help protect our hearts and blood vessels.

Food as medicine — the “hold your nose and eat it anyway” argument. Weak, right?

Now, rhapsody. Those that love ’em, anticipate the “fresh” season with pleasure. These tiny cabbages-on-a-stalk are mighty cute, besides being good for you. How you prepare them can make or break your dish, so go for delicious. 

The first tip is to use sprouts of similar size for even cooking. Smaller sprouts tend to be sweeter. Then, don’t overcook them. Overcooked sprouts will release that strong sulfur smell some find unpleasant. Their color should remain an intense green; olive-drab sprouts have been overcooked.

Roasting on a sheet pan is simple and can bring out the sweetness of sprouts. Rinse the sprouts, and if you want, carve an “X” on the base to help cook faster and more evenly — or cut each sprout into halves or quarters.

To roast, toss with olive oil and salt, spread out in a single layer and then pop in a 450-degree oven. How long to roast for? You should be able to pierce them with a fork, so no more than 20 to 25 minutes at this temp. The roasting helps caramelize the exterior, adding sweetness, while the insides remain tender. Dress with you favorite concoction: balsamic vinegar, a honey-mustard dressing, a chili-lime or lemon-herb sauce.

You can also pan-sear Brussels sprouts in oil or butter on the stovetop. This method gives an even and crisp outer coating if the halved sprouts are cooked cut-side down until browned.

Steam them for 5 to 7 minutes, and they can help lower cholesterol by binding together with bile acids in your gut. But don’t overcook, and dress with something tasty and perhaps slightly sweet to overcome the bitter factor, since you won’t be caramelizing with a steaming process.

If you want to freeze fresh Brussels sprouts, steam them first for between 3 to 5 minutes. They will keep in the freezer for up to one year.

Add in various favorites to make a creative dish of your choosing. One friend adds olives and artichoke hearts, dresses the concoction and sprinkles with sesame seeds.

Another friend uses Brussels sprouts as the base of her signature dish. She halves and blanches the sprouts first for about 6 minutes, for best texture. A natural cook, she then dries the blanched sprouts and sautés them and some onion in some bacon drippings, adding some garlic, red pepper flakes and cayenne for savory heat near the end. Then she tosses in some golden raisins, pistachios, crumbled bacon and thinly sliced apple at the end. To dress, she stirs in a little honey, Dijon mustard and shredded Parmesan cheese into the pan. 

“It’s even good cold,” she promises. She thinks dried cranberries might be a nice substitute for the golden raisins, and notes both the fruit and the honey counter any bitterness.

What about the kitchen garden? I have failed twice at growing Brussels sprouts here. The heat, bugs and long growing season did the plants in. They require about four long months to form the marble- to golf ball-sized sprouts, and meanwhile, the aphids and other bugs have a field day. Heat is not their friend. So I am happy to buy them grown in cooler, more sprout-friendly regions. 

And how fortuitous that these little cabbage “Christmas trees” are so readily available fresh this time of year. Or, frozen, if you prefer the convenience.

Here is the simplest possible recipe — if sprouts are new in your kitchen, start here, and build up your signature dish according to your tastes.

Simple Roasted Brussels Sprouts

1 1/2 pounds Brussels sprouts 

3 tablespoons good olive oil 

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut off the brown ends of the Brussels sprouts and pull off any yellow outer leaves. Mix them in a bowl with the olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread them on a sheet pan and roast for 35 to 40 minutes, until crisp on the outside and tender on the inside. Shake the pan from time to time to brown the sprouts evenly. Sprinkle with more salt.  PS

Jan Leitschuh is a local gardener, avid eater of fresh produce and co-founder of the Sandhills Farm to Table cooperative.

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