It’s the holiday season, the time of year when families come together, for better or worse, to celebrate the bounties that we as a people are generally afforded, promote the well appointed perception about our love for food and commercialism and to begrudgingly give thanks for one another. I say begrudgingly because for every heartfelt Reddit post about a miracle connection or the hidden kindness of a sympathetic TSA agent there’s a BuzzFeed list on just surviving the holiday. For example:
While sitting next to your strange aunt or uppity cousin who not so subtlety reminds you how much better he’s doing in life is excruciating so too is having to consume tired casseroles or soggy overcooked vegetables between courses of decadent desserts and awesome slow cooked meats. Would you believe then, that holiday salvation can be found in the form of the most maligned vegetable in the garden.
Yes Virginia, I’m talking about the Brussels sprout. The unassuming and oft neglected little cabbage can teach us everything we need to know about rounding out a holiday meal and dealing with those odd house guests we call relatives.
First, a history lesson, though admittedly a complicated and not very clear one. Brussels Sprouts originated in (surprise!) Brussels, sometime in the 16th century, we think. Actually we don’t really know for sure and despite the name and that this is the generally accepted origin story, nearly everyone agrees that we’re probably almost definitely wrong. The best we can do is pinpoint that because cabbages have been cultivated in the Mediterranean for over 2,000 years, that the sprout must have come from somewhere near there sometime between the 5th and 18th century and that they were introduced to the United States in the 1800s in Louisiana, by the French.
While the exact origin of this much maligned veggie is up for debate, at least we know what the hell the thing is, right? Yeah, though even that isn’t so simple. Brussels sprouts are tiny cabbages, actually the buds of a type of cabbage, and it feels like there’s a “chicken or the egg” thing here so let’s just call them cabbage and move on. Otherwise I have to mention that they are a cruciferous vegetable, and belong to the same species as broccoli and then heads start exploding. Actually, being a cruciferous vegetable is a great thing, because it means that there are all sorts of healthy advantages to eating sprouts, especially anti-cancer advantages. All in all, Brussels sprouts are one of the healthiest foods out there so long as you cook them properly, and therein lies the whole issue when it comes to sprouts.
If your fondest memory of Brussels sprouts involves a soggy, slightly slimy and dull pile of greens then you know exactly the sort of culinary hell that accompanies poorly cooked sprouts. That’s because boiling sprouts or any cruciferous vegetable too much breaks them down and promotes that bitter sulfur taste that you probably remember. It also destroys many of the healthy components, which further reduces why the hell you would be eating them in the first place. Also, if you’re basing your opinion on the sprouts your parents force fed to you as a child, you might be using bad data, literally. These days the sprouts you buy and eat are less bitter and actually healthier, because science.
No really, they are. How exactly? Well, the answer has most to do with ” Glucosinolate” which are aminos that consist of a carbon and sulfur molecule held together. These molecules were found to be responsible for the bitter taste, and through some selective breeding techniques, we’ve been able to moderate the bitterness in sprouts and other cruciferous vegetables. Mind you, if you overcook them you will still get gross sprouts, but at least science is giving you an extra edge.
So back to those relatives and that holiday dinner. How exactly do Brussels Sprouts help us survive both? The dinner part is easy. When asked to contribute to the meal you can impress everyone by telling them that you have a quick, thrifty, tasty and healthy side dish that requires very little fuss. They’ll be all the more impressed when you lower expectations with the words “Brussels Sprouts” and then absolutely surprise them with something delicious and festive.
The nice thing about Brussels Sprouts is that they pair well with most meals. They be the perfect side dish to a meat entree, or help round out an appetizer course before you get to your grandmother’s lasagna. Seriously, carry a plate of well made sprouts over to your strange aunt and I promise she’ll stop nagging you about significant others from 5 years ago. And while your well meaning but competitive cousin might have his own condo, I bet he still microwaves dinner every night. But in all seriousness, Brussels sprouts and family members can be pretty similar. They require a little patience and care, and despite their rough edges can actually make the holidays rather special.
So here are two quick recipes for great sprouts in just minutes. Each recipe is based on cooking one pound of Brussels sprouts. The roasting method is a little more hands off, perfect when you’re already busy with other dishes, and roasting the sprouts produces a nutty rich flavor. Sauteing them in bacon and wine allows the sprouts to soak up additional flavors and gives a real savory bite to them. The bacon and cheese pair perfectly as toppings. Both recipes are fantastic, but one of them involves bacon so I dare to say that one is fantastic-er.
Roasted Brussels Sprouts
- Pre-heat the oven to 375
- Half the sprouts and rinse briefly before drying thoroughly.
- In a bowl toss the sprouts with salt, pepper, and good olive oil.
- Spread the sprouts evenly on a cookie sheet.
- Roast the sprouts for about 30 minutes or until tender and browned. Immediately season with more salt.Serve hot or at room temperature.
Sauteed Brussels Sprouts
- Half the sprouts and rinse briefly before drying thoroughly.
- In a large frying pan over medium-high heat, cook off the bacon until it is very crispy.
- Remove the bacon and reserve the fat. Crumble the bacon and save as a topping for later.
- Reduce the heat to medium and add the sprouts. Immediately season with salt and pepper.
- Saute the sprouts for 15 minutes, or until they begin to brown.
- Add in the red wine and saute for 10 minutes more or until they are tender.
- Serve hot or at room temperature with crumbled bacon and Parmesan cheese.