Let’s give Brussels sprouts the same appreciation we give cabbage

Russ Parsons: I would bet most sprout-haters have only experienced ill-prepared offerings

Russ Parsons: ‘Granted, when found in the wild, Brussels sprouts can be rather curious looking.’

Russ Parsons: ‘Granted, when found in the wild, Brussels sprouts can be rather curious looking.’

 

One of the first pages I turn to every morning while reading The Irish Times is the Letters to the Editor. As a blow-in I find them endlessly instructive on Irish matters large and small – from the subtleties of party politics to various creative responses to the greeting “Howya”.

Almost without exception I find the exchanges on this page to be polite and well-reasoned. However, recently there was a series of letters that made my blood boil. How could so many seemingly reasonable people be so wrongheaded?

I am speaking, of course, of the exchange of views on Brussels sprouts.

I’m sure many of you were equally taken aback. How could such a wonderful food be the object of such vile calumnies? One C Murray (who instigated the whole brouhaha by asking whether anyone actually liked Brussels sprouts – such a question!) compared them in a later missive to “fried beer mats”. Reader, I am not making this up.

Such an opinion strikes me as not only deeply mistaken, but perplexing. One of the great joys of Irish cooking is the plenitude and quality of cabbage and the respect it is given.

Cabbage

I remember the first time I saw the deeply ruffled heads of Savoy at my local Tesco. I nearly wept. Cabbage in the US is almost always only a pale round head that has the shape, texture and flavour of a bowling ball.

Irish cooks give cabbage the deference it is due. Is there a dish more soul satisfying than a pot of long-simmered bacon, potatoes and cabbage? Is there anything more emblematically Irish?

Well, then, I put it to you: What else is a Brussels sprout but a petit chou? The endearment is well-earned.

So why are they so often treated as nothing more than a relic of the ritual Christmas table, like some sour-faced uncle invited out of obligation rather than pleasure? After all, according to Bord Bia’s Best in Season chart, they are in season for much of the year, except for April-August.

Granted, when found in the wild, Brussels sprouts can be rather curious looking. Dozens of tiny heads on a single long club-like stem, they look rather like weapons the vegans might use when they finally decide to take over.

Deceiving

But in this case looks are deceiving. Brussels sprouts need to be treated tenderly. In fact, I would be willing to wager that most sprout-haters have only experienced examples that have been ill-prepared. Remember: there are no bad ingredients, just bad cooks.

So here’s a primer from one devoted sproutaphile. Consider it a modest corrective to some of the heresies that have been published recently.

First, choose your sprouts carefully. Just as you would pass by a head of cabbage with leaves that are limp and careworn, choose sprouts that seem fresh and lively. Squeeze a head between your fingers; it should feel tight and hard.

When you get them home, refrigerate them in a tightly sealed plastic bag. Cabbages can stand room temperature but tiny sprouts lose their sparkle quickly.

To get the best of Brussels sprouts’ nutty flavour cook them quickly

Inevitably in any package, there will be some that are in better condition than others. Edit ruthlessly. Discard any that seem spongy. Peel back any leaves that appear darkened or soft and trim the dried-out stump where the sprout had been attached to the stalk.

Brussels sprouts can be prepared in a number of ways, but remember that brevity is best. While cabbages turn sweet and silky with extended cooking, to get the best of Brussels sprouts’ nutty flavour cook them quickly.

Probably the simplest method is roasting. Slice them in half from top to tail. Toss with olive oil and a little salt. Arrange in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake at 220 degrees until they’re caramelised, about 20 minutes.

That’s the basic outline. You can season them as you choose, both before and after cooking.

My favourite technique for preparing them is only slightly more involved. Steam the whole trimmed heads just until the tip of a paring knife enters easily. They should NOT be done all the way through. Cool briefly and cut into lengthwise quarters. Prepared this way, the centres stay slightly crisp and bright green.

Diced chorizo

Again, finish cooking as you like. Lately I’ve been reducing balsamic vinegar with chopped smoked rashers and minced shallots and tossing the quartered sprouts in that. This is also awfully good with diced chorizo.

In fact, Brussels sprouts are terrific with all kinds of cured pork. Crisp some cubed bacon, add minced shallot, coarsely chopped chestnuts and a little chicken broth and simmer. Add a bit of vinegar and the steamed sprouts and cook just to marry the flavours.

If you’re very patient, you can make a slaw with sprouts by peeling off the individual leaves and tossing them with a dressing. If you’re like the rest of us, just slice the raw heads as thin as you can.

This is also really good tossed in a very hot pan just long enough to wilt and finished with walnut oil, sherry vinegar and chopped toasted walnuts.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

Beer mats, indeed.

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