Ask The Forager: A sprout grows in brussels
Dear Alan: I’m starting to think about Thanksgiving dinner. I’d like to have a vegetable dish that I can make ahead of time that would be seasonal, lighter and more healthful than green bean casserole.
Alan: As you suggested, the season for fresh local green beans is well over by late November. And many other traditional holiday side dishes are also heavy with sugar and fat. Fortunately, there are options that are seasonal, fresh and delicious.
Brussels sprouts are at their best in late fall and winter. These miniature members of the cabbage family develop their sweet, nutty flavor during cold weather and can be a welcome addition to our holiday table.
Their history is somewhat uncertain, but we do know they were being grown in Belgium in the Middle Ages. They have been found listed prominently on the menus of wedding feasts of Burgundian dukes in the late 1400s, when Burgundy extended into what is now Belgium.
And Thomas Jefferson planted brussels sprouts in his garden at Monticello for the first time in 1812.
I think brussels sprouts are delicious, but they have to be treated right. Many people don’t like them, because when cooked too long they develop a strong, unpleasant “old cabbage” flavor, especially when boiled whole.
This problem is easily avoided by a few easy steps in preparation and quick cooking methods.
Brussels sprouts grow attached to a thick, tall stalk, and can sometimes be found in the market, stalk and all. But mostly you will find them as individual tiny cabbages.
Look for small sprouts and choose those that feel firm and heavy. Avoid any that have wilting or yellowing leaves. They will keep for several days in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.
When you are ready to cook, soak the sprouts in cold, salted water for 5 to 10 minutes to coax any tiny unwanted guests, such as aphids, to emerge. Fish the sprouts out and drain.
Pull off any loose leaves around the stem, and trim the stem close to the bottom of the sprout.
At this point they can be cut in half through the stem and steamed or cooked in a little water until just tender, about 4 or 5 minutes. Toss with butter, a little salt and pepper and serve right away.
If you want to do a quick sauté, separate the individual leaves from the stem. To do this, cut out the core and tease the leaves apart, chopping the tiny ball of leaves in the center. Or you can just cut the whole sprouts into 1/8-inch slices.
Heat a little olive oil or butter in a sauté pan and add the leaves or slices. Cook and stir for a few minutes, then add about 1/4-inch of water or chicken stock to the pan. Season with salt and pepper and cook over medium heat until most of the liquid has evaporated.
For more flavor cook some diced bacon and onion in the olive oil before adding the sliced sprouts. Or add some chopped fresh garlic toward the end.
If you want a do-ahead replacement for green bean casserole, try this delicious gratin.
Brussels Sprouts Gratin
2 Tbsp. melted butter
1 pound brussels sprouts, sautéd with onion and bacon as above
2/3 cup half-and-half or cream
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs (made by processing cubes of fresh bread in a food processor)
Brush a baking dish with 1 Tablespoon of the melted butter. Add the sprout mixture and spread evenly. Pour over the half-and-half or cream. Cover and refrigerate until a half hour before serving.
Preheat oven to 400°F. in time to bake. Sprinkle the gratin with the bread crumbs and drizzle with the remaining butter (or more to taste). Bake for 25 minutes, or until crumbs are browned and liquid is bubbling.
Chef Alan Tangren spent 22 years as a chef in the kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, eight of those years spent as the Chez Panisse forager. He teaches cooking classes and directs monthly Chef’s Tables at Tess’ Kitchen Store, 115 Mill St. in Grass Valley. Learn more at http://www.tesskitchenstore.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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