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Brussels Sprouts

Brussels sprouts and bacon in a black cast iron skillet on a wooden surface.
Jack Kennard/Jack Kennard jackkennard.com
Jack Kennard
Brussels sprouts and bacon. Photo by Jack Kennard via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I'm afraid I have to admit that some of my tastes for food developed embarrassingly late in life. A prime example is Brussels sprouts. I made it all through my college years and my young adult era never having touched the nasty things. And then one summer I was spending in England changed everything. We had sprouts at every single dinner, and as I told Chef Jerry Pellegrino, you either ate 'em up or you went hungry. Not surprisingly, Jerry is a huge fan of Brussels sprouts and delighted in serving them at his restaurants to skeptical customers. Nine times out of ten, they were converted.

It should come as no surprise that Brussels sprouts are closely related to cabbages; just look at them. For those of us who are used to seeing them sold as cartons of individual sprouts, it's surprising to see them fresh off the farm field in their original state. They grow on spiky stalks, budding in profusion up and down their length. The buds at the bottom are the big fat sprouts; the ones growing up top are the smaller ones.

Sprouts have been cultivated in Europe since medieval times, and yes, they developed not far from Brussels in Belgium. Primarily a winter crop, modern cultivars are available year round. And in the US, sunny California is the major source for them. Here in Maryland we see them up through late spring, and then again starting in September.

I'm glad to say that Brussels sprouts have become rather popular these days. Roasted, caramelized sprouts are a fixture on many menus, often appearing as an appetizer. As a side dish for the main course, a mess of sprouts on the plate are most welcome.

In terms of cooking Brussels sprouts, just about anything goes. My favorite technique is to steam them, cutting the biggest sprouts in two, and then serving them with butter and Lea and Perrins sauce.

But there are tons of other options. First let's consider the things that the sprouts are compatible with. Anything rich in umami works great, which would include soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, balsamic vinegar and garlicky aioli. Pungent seasonings like Sriracha, chili sauce, barbecue sauce and red pepper flakes are good. A lot of recipes incorporate various cheeses; parmesan is a particular favorite, as is shredded cheddar. The savory flavor of bacon is a fine match but ham, pancetta or prosciutto are good choices. Nuts like walnuts, pistachios or almonds are useful partners. And fruity matches come to mind: oranges, tangerines, pink grapefruit, peaches and apricots all work well. And you have the option of using cut up fresh fruit or preserves. Finally, I think Brussels sprouts pair very well with Cabernet Sauvignon wine.

Let's look at a few recipes that will give you Brussels sprout inspiration.

Shredded sprouts show up in coleslaw recipes all the time. But you can sauté those shredded sprouts and mix in crumbled bacon, garlic and lemon juice for a very attractive side dish.

Roasting or baking Brussels sprouts has become a crowd-pleasing favorite. You'll always want to cut the sprouts in half to hasten cooking, and you'll want to drizzle some sort of savory dressing over them. I like a blend of soy sauce and melted orange marmalade. A hot 375° to 400° oven is appropriate if you want to get that sweet caramelization going.

One pan frying recipe I saw recommended blanching the sprouts first for about 5 minutes, then shocking them with cold ice water. This helps to eliminate some of the funkier flavors and leave the sweet, savory essence behind. To cook them, start a batch of chopped bacon in a skillet, cooking until fat is rendered. Toss in the blanched sprouts, cook until tender, then sprinkle some minced garlic over it all. Deglaze the pan with a little white wine to make a good skillet sauce and you're done.

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
Executive Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant is fascinated by food and wine, and the way they work in harmony on the palate. His understanding of the two goes all the way to the molecular level, drawing on his advanced education in molecular biology. His cuisine is simple and surprising, pairing unexpected ingredients together to work with Corks' extensive wine offerings.