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Food and Drink

Not your parents' Brussels sprouts

Less-bitter varieties and better cooking methods account for the new popularity of this once-reviled cousin of cabbage and broccoli

Brussels sprouts once seemed to be more of an obligation than a delight.

Relegated to the “dowdy” category of foods, alongside prunes and cottage cheese, the globular little vegetable was often dumped from a freezer bag into a pot of boiling water, to add gassy, bitter flavor to a holiday table otherwise replete with rich, savory dishes.

As recently as the late 1990s, about 80 percent of California farmers’ Brussels sprouts crop was destined for the frozen-foods processing market, according to a 2009 article in the San Jose Mercury News.

But in the subsequent years, that ratio has flipped. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, 10 Vermont farms grew the cruciferous vegetable in 2002 on a total of 3 acres. By 2007, 27 farms were growing Brussels sprouts on 5 acres.

Brussels sprouts are now considered a trendy vegetable, found nationwide in cooking magazines, with celebrity chefs such as Giada De Laurentiis and Bobby Flay contributing recipes.

Locally, one can find Brussels sprouts in upscale deli cases — such as at the recently remodeled Guilford Country Store, where they are cut in half, tossed with oil, salt and pepper, and roasted.

Nearby restaurants featuring Brussels sprouts include the Port Authority Café in Keene, N.H., which serves them in many of their menu items, such as the Afghani goat stew, or the Capital City Gastropub in Albany, N.Y., which serves them as an appetizer, deep-fried and tossed with horseradish, lemon, and Pecorino cheese.

Conversations with local food enthusiasts confirm: Brussels sprouts used to be hated, and now they are loved.

Sarah Klein, the chef at Champney’s Restaurant and Tavern in Deerfield, Mass., was testing a Brussels sprouts dish for a restaurant that was about to open and still under construction, and one of the construction workers expressed his extreme displeasure towards the vegetable.

Somehow, Klein got the worker to try the Brussels sprouts she had just roasted (with just a little salt, pepper, olive oil, and reduced apple cider), and the man who only moments before claimed to hate the vegetable asked for a second helping.

The common denominator found in nearly every recipe for Brussels sprouts — as well as anecdotal tales from those who love them — is how they are prepared.

Contrary to the old method of boiling them, modern recipes commonly suggest roasting the vegetable in a simple toss of olive oil, salt, and pepper, although other additions — such as bacon, garlic, or onions — can further enhance the dish.

Joanne Fuller of Putney is also a convert.

“[A friend] introduced me and my daughter to Brussels [sprouts] three years ago. I’d never had ’em, didn’t think I’d like ’em, and hoped that my 10-year-old was polite enough to eat ’em,” she said.

Fuller uses a simple recipe with olive oil, rosemary, salt, and pepper. And “when I’m feeling fancy, I make a butter sauce with cider or orange juice,” she says.

Phayvanh Leukhamhan, formerly of Brattleboro, says, “They are [a] good addition to the typical mix of roasted veggies because they are not roots.”

Brussels sprouts are good at soaking up and taking on the flavors of other foods, as Brattleboro resident Joanne Nielsen suggests.

“My favorite way to roast Brussels sprouts is to bake them in the oven with some cut-up potatoes, olive oil, and seasonings with some meat on top,” Nielsen says.

Other popular recipes, such as the one offered by Wegman’s, the upscale mid-Atlantic grocery chain, recommends simply shredding raw Brussels sprouts instead of cabbage to make a slaw.

Brussels sprouts are also enjoyed pan-seared or grilled. Michael Auerbach of Putney slices off the bottom root end, separating the sprouts into individual leaves.

“Then sauté with cranberries and nuts and stuff,” he advises. “Leave it to me to make Brussels sprouts complicated.”

And Judith Thomas of Brattleboro says, “I am a purist: just cut them in half, steam the little suckers and use butter and salt on them.”

“After the first bite I couldn’t get enough and found myself craving them often,” says Brattleboro resident Shannon Albritton, who discovered Brussels sprouts only upon getting married — her husband, Campbell, loves them.

“I now truly enjoy them steamed with real butter and salt,” says Albritton, who offers another key strategy for cooking Brussels sprouts more palatably: waiting until they can be grown locally.

“For me, that’s the difference, because when fresh, they have a subtle, natural sweetness,” Albritton says.

A tastier hybrid, a storied history

The Brussels sprout’s recent popularity cannot solely be attributed to a critical mass of people finally learning to properly prepare the vegetable. The vegetable itself has been updated to appeal to a modern palate.

The locus of the Brussels sprout’s newfound status as fashionable vegetable can be traced to the Netherlands.

In the late-1990s, the Dutch branch of Syngenta, a Swiss biotech and chemicals company, developed a hybrid variety, the Maximus, which was sweeter and had lower levels of glucosinolate, a natural organic compound found in cruciferous vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cabbage.

Gluconsinolate contains sulfur, which is released in abundance when the plant is overcooked and which is why the old-fashioned method of boiling Brussels sprouts until they are gray and mushy also makes them taste bitter and cause gastric distress.

According to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health website, glucosinates “break down into several biologically active compounds that are being studied for possible anticancer effects.”

“Some of these compounds have shown anticancer effects in cells and animals, but the results of studies with humans have been less clear,” the agency writes.

The new variety retained enough glucosinolate to keep the Brussels sprouts’ familiar flavor and health benefits, but not so much that it masked the plant’s inherent sweetness.

Once these new hybrid plants were distributed to farmers, all the stealthy little sprout had to do was keep growing, waiting for chefs and food writers to take notice.

The majority of Europe’s Brussels sprouts are currently grown in the southern portion of the Netherlands, and this region is also where the continent’s love of the vegetable originated.

Brussels sprouts might look like miniature cabbages, and they belong to the same family, Brassicaceae. But it is its own vegetable, Brassica oleracea Gemmifera.

A predecessor to the sprout was said to have grown in ancient Rome, but there’s some dispute regarding that claim. “Although the cabbage is native to the Mediterranean region (where it has been cultivated for some 2,500 years), Brussels sprouts were developed in northern Europe (the cabbage was carried there by the Romans) around the fifth century — or perhaps even later.

According to the Cambridge World History of Food, “the plant was cultivated near Brussels in the 13th century; another places the first recorded description of Brussels sprouts in 1587; still another claims that they have been widely grown in Europe only since the 17th century; whereas at least one more source insists that they have become popular in Europe only since World War I. Of course, these claims are not necessarily contradictory.”

Even though Brussels sprouts were first grown in the region of northern Europe now known as Belgium, it’s not entirely clear why they were specifically associated with Brussels. It’s also somewhat unclear when that occurred. The first mention of them in print, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, appeared in 1796, but the vegetable had been cultivated long before, so were they referred to as something else? That fact has been lost to history.

Their debut as a recipe was in 1845, in Eliza Acton’s groundbreaking Modern Cookery for Private Families, one of the first English-language cookbooks written specifically for the domestic cook rather than the professional chef. With countless other cookbooks written in English for the trained chef, but with no Brussels sprouts recipes, one can confidently surmise the vegetables were living under an alias.

Brussels sprouts made their way to the United States — specifically, Louisiana — via the French in the 18th century, and Thomas Jefferson had them grown at Monticello.

Growing the plants

The way Brussels sprouts grow — helices of tiny buds growing around a tall, central stalk — makes an eyecatching addition to a home vegetable garden. The entire stalk can be cut down and brought inside, where a sharp knife will separate the sprouts.

Sometimes they are sold on the stalk at farmstands and in grocery stores, but most often they come in a small, paperboard cup covered by a sheet of cellophane, secured with a rubber band (the cup usually holds about 12-16 ounces of sprouts); in a cellophane bag; or loose for customers to bag their own. Fresh is really the best way to purchase them, but gardeners and shoppers should note that as a hardy vegetable, Brussels sprouts do freeze well.

California began commercial cultivation in the 1920s and is now responsible for where approximately 98 percent of domestic Brussels sprout farming.

In southeastern Vermont, Brussels sprouts are considered a “hardy” plant, somewhat resistant to frost; in fact, many farmers insist they taste sweeter if picked after a frost.

Laura Fidler, a former restaurant owner, reports: “They’re easy to grow. I’ve never started from seed but have gotten baby plants at the nursery. They’re a late harvest — definitely the last thing in my garden.

The plants grow in temperature ranges of 45 degrees to 75 degrees Fahrenheit (ideally between 59 and 64 degrees), and are ready for harvest 90 to 180 days after planting. Their natural sulfur makes them somewhat resistant to insects.

But other creatures must be considered as well.

Laura Austan, a Brattleboro chef, says, “I only grew them once, and deer ate them all.”

“And I have to keep my Labrador away, or he’ll eat them all, one by one, off the stalks,” Fidler says.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #248 (Wednesday, April 2, 2014). This story appeared on page C1.

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