Turning a New Leaf on a Misunderstood Sprout

Ginger Brussels Sprouts

hide captionGinger, carrot and Brussels sprouts, inspired by chef Nobu Matsuhisa. Recipes below.

Howard Yoon

My love affair began at a gift shop just off a rainy highway outside Brussels. It was the mid-1990s. I was with three friends, on my way from Paris to Amsterdam by car, and had just enough francs in my pocket to treat myself to nice snack. I decided on a Belgian chocolate bar.

For someone raised on Zagnuts, Mars and Kit Kats, the chocolate bar was an awakening for my young taste buds — less sugary than American chocolate and richer in a way that hit all the right notes on my palate. I remember thinking excitedly, this is chocolate!

Shopping Tips

Look for fresh sprouts still on the stem at your local farmer's market between November and March.

Avoid sprouts that feel soft to the touch or have scary dark holes in the outer leaves (bugs!).

Keep sprouts refrigerated. The bright green leaves turn yellowish at room temperature — and no one wants to eat a yellow Brussels sprout.

Since then, I have been an unabashed Belgiophile. From Belgium's Trappist and Lambic ales, to its book-sized waffles, to its thick-cut golden fries topped with quivering mounds of mayonnaise, this tiny country of 10 million people, in a land area the size of Maryland, has perfected the art of eating and drinking.

So how is it that the same country that has produced some of the world's finest gustatory treasures is also home to a vegetable more reviled than broccoli and as intimidating as the artichoke?

About the Author

Howard Yoon is the creative director of the Gail Ross Literary Agency in Washington, D.C. He has written and edited numerous non-fiction books.

Meet the lowly Brussels sprout. It's named after the capital of Belgium (hence the capital "B" and the "s"), where it is believed to have been first harvested centuries ago. Much maligned and oft misunderstood, the Brussels sprout resembles a miniature cabbage. Its leafy green head is usually 1-2 inches in diameter, roughly the size of a golf ball, but each sprout packs a potent punch of contrasting flavors.

When overcooked — usually by boiling — the Brussels sprout loses its viridian luster and resembles its pallid cousin, the boiled cabbage. But in a nod to ingenious evolutionary survival, overcooking also releases an unpleasant-smelling sulphur compound from the sprout's core, an olfactory offense that is the reason many people thumb their noses at this vegetable. It's a shame it's so intimately linked to the smell, since simply not overcooking avoids the problem.

Undercooking presents a different set of challenges, keeping the Brussels sprout's flavors concentrated inside its veiny leaves and thick root. The result is a vegetable too bitter and tinny for even the most forgiving palate — the taste equivalent of sucking on old pennies. Gack.

But when cooked just right, Brussels sprouts can delight the senses with their nutty, woodsy flavor. Well-cooked sprouts should be neither crunchy nor flaccid. Their leaves should still retain a slight crispness, while their flavor should suggest a hint of pleasant bitterness and deliver a subtle aftertaste similar to an aged, sharp cheese.

Harvested in the fall and winter months, Brussels sprouts are the perfect accompaniment to a cold weather dish such as roasted chicken, seared fish or pork tenderloin. Their leaves act as reliable conveyors of any flavor or sauce, and the sprouts' size and shape and bright green exteriors make them ideal visual complements for a plated main course. They are also high in dietary fiber and Vitamin C and contain healthy amounts of folic acid, potassium and Vitamin K.

Brussels sprouts shouldn't be avoided just because they are a bit tricky to cook. The following recipes offer two simple ways for even the pickiest of eaters to enjoy one of Belgium's finest. The first recipe, inspired by chef Nobu Matsuhitsa, uses only the outer leaves of the sprout, ensuring full flavor without the risk of under- or overcooking. The second recipe is a more traditional roasted sprouts dish.

Ginger Brussels Sprouts

Serves 4 as a side dish.

2 pounds Brussels sprouts (or 2 tub containers)

1 carrot, finely julienned into 2-inch-long strips

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated ginger

1 tablespoon butter

Salt and pepper to taste

1. Prepare large pot of salted boiling water and a large bowl of ice water.

2. Soak the sprouts in water for a few minutes. Then rinse under cold running water. Do not scrub sprouts.

3. Using a sharp knife, cut the base of each sprout and remove with your fingers the outermost 2-3 layers of leaves. Cut off more of the base and remove another 2-3 layers of leaves. Discard the remainder of the sprout. You will end up with a medium-sized bowl full of cupped leaves.

4. Drop the leaves into the boiling water for 30 seconds. Stir.

5. Remove leaves from pot and place them in the ice water for 30 seconds. Drain the leaves and pat them dry with paper towels.

6. Heat a large skillet on medium heat with the butter. Add julienned carrots, stirring frequently. Add sprout leaves and fresh ginger and saute for 2-3 more minutes. The leaves should retain their shape but be fully cooked.

7. Salt and pepper to taste.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Serves 4 as a side dish.

2 pounds Brussels sprouts (or 2 prepackaged tubs)

2 cloves garlic

3 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 cup chicken stock

Salt and pepper

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

2. Soak the sprouts in water for a few minutes. Then rinse under cold running water. Do not scrub sprouts. Trim the stems and cut sprouts in half lengthwise.

3. Toss sprouts with olive oil, salt, pepper and crushed garlic. Place contents in an 11-inch-by-7-inch or 9-inch-by-9-inch baking dish.

4. Roast for 15 minutes. Add stock. Turn sprouts with spatula and scrape any bits stuck to the bottom of the dish.

5. Roast another 5 minutes or until the edges are slightly browned and the leaves are tender.

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