As part of my comfort-chic food philosophy, I love the challenge of uplifting childhood favorites and forgotten veggies to star status. Since I’ve been counting down my foodie faves from 2010 and predicting 2011’s upcoming culinary trends, I’d like to revisit one of winter’s most venerable and most deplored (depending upon the age of who you ask!) farmers’ market darlings. This vegetable, which has a stereotypically horrific reputation from childhood, has in recent years become elevated to celebrity eminence by just about every chef in the city. You can’t go into a NYC restaurant these days and not find them on the menu in some form: atop a pizza, shaved into a salad, roasted on bruschetta, dosed in spicy Thai flavors, or paired with figs, shallots, beets or bacon, these suckers are universally celebrated the winter over. The suspect in question? The Brussels sprout.
As a kid, Brussels sprouts were one of the disgusts of dinnertime my brother and I had to endure: overly boiled, water-logged and mushy, these Brussels sprouts had none of their crunchy-crisp texture but all of the taste of stewed, slimy cabbage. Done right, sprouts gain a caramely sweetness that lends itself to infinite adaptations. The first time I had Brussels sprouts as an adult, they were roasted, drizzled with Vermont maple syrup and Sicilian sea salt, and garnished with thick pieces of crisped yet chewy, Italian pancetta. I’ve since expanded my Brussels sprouts recipe repertoire, fully embracing these small antioxidant powerhouses as part of my regular winter rotation. Truth be told, Mamma most likely overcooked these veggie balls filled with mustard oils and natural chemicals that break down into a variety of smelly sulfur compounds when they spend too long in a hot pot of water. The safest way to avoid overcooking is to blanch or steam the sprouts in a small puddle of water until they are al dente. But my favorite way to eat them might actually be raw!
Brussels sprouts are typically cooked, but one of my favorite ways to prepare them is actually in a raw salad that proves the perfect accompaniment to heavier winter fare. Years ago I used to order this dish alongside a plate of house-cured proscuitto at the bar at Lupa, while waiting for my table when Lupa first opened to huge success and long lines with its no reservation policy. The key to this recipe is finely shredding the Brussels sprouts on a mandoline so they can fully absorb their simple, emulsified dressing of olive oil, parmigiano and pecorino. I often throw in the zest from a lemon as well, to balance their earthy flavor with a little acid.
Brussels sprouts are also prominent in Thai-inspired fare, as I found out this past Christmas, when I tried a new dish for my brother, who loves all things Asian (i.e. sushi, chili paste and video games ranking chief among them)! Inspired by a dish from The Vanderbilt restaurant in Prospect Heights, these sprouts are roasted in a sweet-spicy-tart dressing of Sriracha hot sauce, honey and lime. They were positively addicting, but I would recommend going light on the Sriracha if cooking for a crowd and simply passing around a bottle of the chili sauce for those who like things extra spicy–like me.
My own recipe creation has become a Dinner Belle favorite, and I promise it will convert even the sprout-shy among us. My sprouts are first blanched, then sautéed atop the stove, tossed with Dicksons’ Farmstand bacon (how can you go wrong?) and drizzled with fig vincotto. This Italian, fig specialty is made by slow cooking and reducing grape must until it’s syrupy-sweet. I buy mine from Buon Italia in Chelsea Market, (and I bet Eataly has a great selection too), but it’s perfectly fair to replace this hard-to-find import with an aged or reduced balsamic vinegar and fresh or dried figs. Oddly enough, the ingredient that might prove even harder to track down this time of year are the sprouts themselves.
Brussels sprouts technically go out of season in NYC come December, but imported options can be found in supermarkets all year long. Though a slave to market trends and seasonality, Brussels sprouts are one ingredient I insist on eating even after our New York soil has gotten too cold for these stalks to sprout. Thanksgiving might be our local breed’s last hurrah, but I sprout-up menus from September (when they first start appearing in the markets) through March (when our gaze turns to spring ramps, tulips and asparagus). When looking for sprouts, always choose the smallest, tightest balls, for the creamiest texture and most delicate flavor, and consider this: You can’t change your hair from your high school graduation photos or the dress you wore to your first middle dance, but there’s new hope for transforming some memories from family dinners past using my updated Brussels sprouts creations as your guide.
Fig Vincotto Glazed Bacon Brussels Sprouts (serves 8)
- 2 lb Brussels Sprouts (larger ones halved)
- 8 oz Bacon (cubed or cut into lardon strips)
- Fig Vincotto
- Salt & Pepper
Heavily salt a large pot of water and bring it to boil. Blanch Brussels sprouts for 3 minutes in the hot pot then remove them immediately to an ice bath and drain. Fry the bacon cubes til golden, and then remove them from the pan to a paper towel, being sure to reserve the bacon fat in the pan. Add blanched sprouts to the bacon fat and stir uncovered until they begin to brown (15 min). Finish by drizzling them with a generous pour of fig vincotto and top with bacon bits.