Secrets of the sprouts

How to make the lowly Brussels sprout a star

April 26, 2007

When asked why he ordered Brussels sprouts for lunch every day, Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie replied, “I cannot resist ordering them. The words are so lovely to say.”

“But he’s an old dead guy,” said my wife, Laurie, who loves Brussels sprouts. “People expect him to eat Brussels sprouts. You need a quote from, like, Gwen Stefani.”

No can do. But when Kristen Bell, the star of the teen TV series “Veronica Mars,” was named one of PETA's sexiest vegetarians, she declared, “I always loved my Brussels sprouts.”

Barrie and Bell may be the only two celebrities ever to publicly admit an affection for the little sprouts, and Barrie, you’ll notice, didn’t actually say he liked them. So this week’s question is: Why don’t Brussels sprouts get any respect?

Fresh Brussels sprouts, still on the stalk.

I’m going on record: I also love my Brussels sprouts. (Although I’ll never be named one of PETA’s sexiest vegetarians.) Unfortunately, food writers get no awards for loving the sprouts. It’s almost expected.

“I wait all year for Brussels sprouts,” writes Molly Wizenberg, author of the blog Orangette and the forthcoming book Orangette: The Stories My Kitchen Tells Me. “Many pine away patiently for October’s first pumpkins or November’s puckery cranberries, but I hang my hopes on a fresh fall Brussels sprout.”

There are, I think, three things that drive people away from Brussels sprouts. I can solve all of them, and then you too can be a hot TV star or dead author.

  1. Brussels sprouts have an unappealing look, like little alien heads, and tend to overcook when cooked whole. So don’t cook them whole. Halve small ones and shred large ones crosswise.
  2. They require a lot of prep. You have to slice the dried bit off the stem end and remove any old leaves. Combine this with the halving or shredding I’m requiring you do to, and you’ll spend half an hour on a side dish. Forget it. I’ll explain the solution to this in a minute.
  3. Despite their indestructible nugget-like appearance, Brussels sprouts are both seasonal and perishable. Fresh sprouts are best in the winter. Look for local ones at a farmers’ market. Buy them on the stalk if possible; they’ll stay fresher and require less prep, and popping them off the stalk with a knife is kind of fun. And cook them the day you buy them; they start to develop a funky taste after just a couple days in the fridge. (This is also true of cauliflower, I’ve noticed.)

At this point, I hope you’re saying, “Okay, I didn’t really like these things anyway, and now he tells me I have to hunt for them next January and wrestle them off a stalk? Screw this.”

Sprouts and bacon, a match made in panfried heaven.

Well, I lied. You don’t have to do those things. You can just look for sprouts in (I’ve always wanted to say this) your grocer’s freezer case. Like most frozen vegetables, frozen sprouts are cheaper and more convenient than fresh. Unlike most frozen vegetables, they almost always taste better. The courage to overcome my fresh-is-best prejudice came after I read a column by Mark Bittman in the New York Times a couple of years ago:

At a meal last fall at Citronelle, the great Washington restaurant, I was served a delicious plate of Brussels sprouts. When I asked the chef, Michel Richard, where they were from, he said without hesitation, “The freezer.”

I bought my first bag of frozen sprouts that day and my freezer hasn’t been without them since. I even made an unlikely convert: my daughter, Iris, who was then two, made a dinner of almost nothing but Brussels sprouts one night. (Don’t worry — now that she’s three, she doesn’t like them anymore. Balance is restored in the universe.)

Our house brand of sprouts is Safeway Select Petite. If you can find petite, buy them; they’re small enough that you can halve the larger ones and leave the smaller ones whole. But non-petite are also tasty and usually cheaper — although we’re talking maybe 75 cents cheaper.

I like to bust out the sprouts at least once a week. Gwen Stefani, if you’re reading, let me know what you think.

Matthew Amster-Burton writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

There are 9 comments on this item
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1. by Liz Crain on Apr 26, 2007 at 1:07 PM PDT

I LOVE SPROUTS TOO! Not when I was little b/c they were always mushy and overcooked -- but since I first had them grilled about 5 years ago. Now I like to broil them and then finish them off stove-top with bacon fat. Basically I think they’re best when a little crispy and caramelized on the outside. I also like to grow them because they are like a magical beanstalk when given the right conditions. But you have to watch out for the aphids -- who like to attack and borrow between the leaves. I’m going to try both of your recipes -- mmm. Thanks

2. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Apr 27, 2007 at 6:56 AM PDT

Liz, I will stay on constant lookout for aphids.

3. by anonymous on Apr 28, 2007 at 9:10 AM PDT

I’m very thankful to my Mom for not forcing me to eat brussels sprouts as a child, thus avoiding the life-long prejudice I’ve been unable to shake regarding other vegies like beans and peas. Luckily my first exposure to them was in a nice restaurant that cooked them properly in lots of butter, so now I love them.

But then, it goes without saying that you could eat shredded cardboard if cooked with enough bacon.

4. by anonymous on May 22, 2007 at 8:34 PM PDT

Roasted brussels are awesome too. Just toss them (halved) with some apple slices in a little olive oil and roast in a 425 oven until they are carmelized. YUM!

5. by joey on Jul 16, 2007 at 2:54 AM PDT

Another brussels sprouts fan here! I came upon them very late in life -- they are not readily available where I live and so far you can only get them imported -- but fell instantly in love. They are both delicious and cute! I cannot get enough of them...seriously. Since you mention Orangette, she has the most amazing recipe for cream braised brussels sprouts...yummy beyond belief :)

6. by Jenne on Sep 16, 2007 at 10:16 PM PDT

You, sir, are HIGH. :-)
I love brussels sprouts, but the frozen ones are horrible and mushy.

What I like to do with the fresh ones: put in a little pot, just cover with water, put a lid on, and boil until all the water evaporates and they scorch just a little.
Add a bit of butter if you like, and salt.

7. by ScottR on Oct 23, 2007 at 9:05 AM PDT

Sprouts are very easy to grow and really fresh ones (as in, I just pulled the stalk out of the ground 10 minutes ago) require much less prep than even very good ones from a store.

And frozen... please. Gack!

8. by Lexica on Nov 25, 2007 at 11:25 AM PST

Why do some people dislike Brussels sprouts? Easy: they’re BITTER. If you’re one of the people who’re sensitive to it, the Russian Roulette aspect of eating Brussels sprouts (“will this one be bitter?.... whew! no. Okay, what about this one?”) gets to be more than you want to deal with.

9. by Roulette Sniper on Feb 21, 2008 at 5:06 PM PST

I must admit, I hate sprouts, BUT your article/blog has made me want to give them another shot:P

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Unexplained Bacon

Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.

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