What it is: Members of the Brassica family, Brussels sprouts are an underrated vegetable resembling miniature cabbages, to which they’re closely related. They are high in Vitamin C and folic acid.
Where it comes from: Brussels sprouts are named for the city in Belgium, but few historians believe that’s their precise origin. However, they were likely first cultivated somewhere in Northern Europe sometime between the 13th and 17th centuries. In the United States, they were — like so many other produce items — popularized by Thomas Jefferson, who grew them at Monticello in the 19th century. Today, California is the biggest U.S. producer, while the Netherlands and, yes, Belgium are top European growers.
What to do with it: More importantly, what not to do — don’t overcook. Brussels sprouts can be steamed, boiled, roasted or sliced and stir-fried, but don’t cook them into mush; if they turn gray-green and squishy they develop the strong flavor most people dislike. Dry heat methods that caramelize the sprouts, such as roasting or sauteing bring out their sweetness.
“The sprouts should have some pleasing green left to look at but will have definite cooked appearance. Too bright a color indicates a raw product and army-green color will indicate poor texture and lead to stronger flavors,” says Chef Tim Kirker at Bistrot Zinc on the Gold Coast., who enhances quickly cooked sprouts with bacon and prunes.
“You can easily increase the complexity of flavor and technique in this dish if you are so inclined,” he says. “Add some minced onion or shallot to the rendered bacon before adding the prunes and sweat or brown to your whim.”
Brussels sprouts are available all year round, but their peak season extends from October through March. They’re just as green as cabbages — why not replace the usual St. Patrick’s Day corned beef and cabbage with bacon and Brussels sprouts?
Bistrot Zinc’s Brussels sprouts with bacon and prunes
Chef Tim Kirker
1-1/2 pounds Brussels sprouts
1/4 pound slab bacon, cut in 1/4-inch dice
3 ounces pitted prunes, cut in 1/4-inch dice
1 tablespoon butter
About 1/4 cup brown chicken stock or chicken broth, as needed
Salt and pepper to taste
Clean the sprouts by paring the dried part of the stem, removing unsightly outer leaves, and quartering through lengthwise. Blanch in rapidly boiling, salted water to a point until just tender (6 to 8 minutes) and shock in ice water. Set aside until ready to use.
Cook the diced bacon to a rich brown color in a frying pan over low to moderate heat; pour off excess drippings from the pan, and add the prunes to cook for only a few minutes to develop some synergy of flavor. (The recipe may be prepared ahead to this point 2 to 3 days before serving. Cover and refrigerate the blanched sprouts and bacon-prune mixture separately.)
Just before serving, get the sprouts hot in pot of boiling water (or heat in a bowl in the microwave with a splash of water), drain, and add to the pan with the already warming bacon-prune mixture. Swirl in the butter and chicken stock. Check for seasoning and serve.
Variation: “Oven-roasted Brussels sprouts are fantastic but require more finesse with time and temperature, and a touch more fat,” says Kirker. “Using your cleaned and quartered sprouts, toss with some vegetable oil, salt and pepper, and spread one layer thick in an appropriately sized tray or roasting pan. Place in a moderate oven (325 to 350 degrees) until done (this will require some stirring in the oven and perhaps covering the roasting pan with some foil if the sprouts start getting black before being cooked to your liking) and toss with the bacon-prune mixture just before service.”
4 side-dish servings.