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Alan Tangren: Give new life to Brussels sprouts

Dear Alan: I’d like to serve Brussels sprouts at a holiday dinner, but I don’t want them to taste like steamed cabbage. Can you help?

Alan: Brussels sprouts are at their best in late fall and winter. These miniature members of the cabbage family develop a sweet, nutty flavor during cold weather and can be a welcome addition to the holiday table — seasonal, fresh and delicious.

Brussels sprouts go beautifully with the roasted meats of fall and winter; beef, venison, pork, and all poultry, especially turkey.



The history of Brussels sprouts is somewhat uncertain, but we do know they were being grown in Belgium in the Middle Ages, when they took their name from the capitol city. And they were listed prominently on menus of wedding feasts for Burgundian dukes in the late 1400s, when Burgundy extended into what is now Belgium.

Brussels sprouts grow neatly lined up and attached to a thick, tall stalk with a few big cabbage-like leaves at the top. They can sometimes be found in the market, stalk and all. But mostly you will find them in bins or bags as individual tiny cabbages. And like cabbage they can be purple or green.



If you find Brussels sprouts on their stalks at the market, choose those with small sprouts and stalks that feel firm and heavy. Individual loose sprouts should also be small and firm and heavy for their size. Avoid sprouts that have wilting or yellowing leaves, or do not form a tight head.

Storage is easier if you pluck off the sprouts that are on the stalk. Individual sprouts will keep for several days to a week 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 out any tiny unwanted guests, such as aphids. Fish the sprouts out and drain.

Pull off any loose leaves around the bottom and trim the stems. I love Brussels sprouts, but they have to be cooked 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.

Easiest preparation is to cut in half through the stem and steam or simmer in a little water until just tender, about 5 to 6 minutes. Toss with butter, a little salt and pepper and serve right away. They will be slightly al dente and fresh tasting.

For additional flavor and texture top with slivered almonds or fresh breadcrumbs that have been fried in a little olive oil or butter until brown and crunchy.

If you want to do a quick sauté, separate the individual leaves from the stem. To do this cut out the core with a paring knife and tease the leaves apart, chopping up the tiny ball of leaves left in the center. Or you can just cut the whole sprouts into 1/8-inch slices, parallel to the stem.

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 ¼-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. Season with salt, pepper, chopped fresh thyme and a squeeze of lemon juice.

Or add some chopped fresh garlic or pepper flakes toward the end. For more flavor, cook some diced bacon and onion in the olive oil before adding the sliced sprouts. For a meatless version add lightly toasted walnuts instead of the onion and bacon.

Any of these sautés will make a delicious pasta sauce. Use a sturdy dried pasta shape like penne of farfalle. Add additional olive oil toward the end of cooking the sprouts and toss with fresh-grated parmesan.

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 Street in Grass Valley. Learn more at http://www.tesskitchenstore.com. Contact him at alan.tesskitchen@gmail.com.


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