Now, I must admit that until recently, I wasn’t a huge fan of the Brussels sprout. Although, I was aware of the kind of cute little “cabbagey” looking veggie – my experiences with them were not happy ones. Too often the preparation resulted in Brussels sprouts that were tough, chewy, stringy and to my dismay were mushy or undercooked to the point of bitterness.
Of course writing a regular column about fruits and veggies, I knew that eventually I’d have to write about a fruit or veggie that I was unfamiliar with or that wasn’t my favorite. So last fall I picked up bag at farmer’s market to try them out.
The good news is that when properly cooked, Brussels Sprouts are a versatile and delightful addition to any meal.
The Brussels Sprout is another proud member of the Brassicaceae family, that includes cabbage, collard greens, broccoli, kale, and kohlrabi to name a few and is a cultivar of wild cabbage known for its small (typically 1–1.5 in diameter) leafy green buds, which resemble miniature cabbages.
The forerunner to the modern Brussels sprout was probably first cultivated in ancient Rome. Brussels sprouts, as we now know them, were grown as early as the 1200s in what is now Belgium. The first written reference of the Brussels sprout dates to 1587. During the sixteenth century they were popular in the southern Netherlands and eventually spread to the cooler parts of Northern Europe.
Production of Brussels sprouts in the United States began around 1800, when French settlers brought them to Louisiana. Though Thomas Jefferson certainly had a few growing around Monticello as he seemed to try every crop available at least once!
Brussels sprout cultivation began in earnest in California’s Central Coast in the 1920s. Today California provides most of the domestic crop with Skagit Valley Washington and Long Island New York rounding out US production. In Europe the largest producers are the Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom.
80% to 85% of US production is for the frozen food market, which probably explains why there are so many unhappy Brussels sprout eaters out there. When it comes to Brussels sprouts fresh is definitely best!
They grow like buds in a spiral array of 20 – 40 on the side of long thick stalks that are 2–4 ft in height. The stalk matures over several weeks from the lower to the upper part of the stalk and averages about 2 pounds per stalk. In the home garden, “sprouts are said to be sweetest after a good, stiff frost.”
Brussels sprouts are typically sage green in color, although some varieties have a red or purple hue. They are most often sold cut off the stalk but can sometimes be found in still attached to the stem.
Good quality sprouts are firm, compact and vivid green. They should be free of yellowed or wilted leaves and should not be soft in texture. Avoid sprouts that have perforations in their leaves as this may indicate that they have aphids. If Brussels sprouts are sold individually, choose those of equal size to ensure that they will cook evenly. For me, the smaller the sprout, the better. Brussels sprouts are available year round, but their peak growing period is from autumn until early spring.
Keep unwashed and untrimmed Brussels sprouts in the vegetable compartment of the refrigerator. Stored in a plastic bag, they can be kept for 10 days.
Brussels sprouts are rich in many important nutrients. They are an excellent source of vitamin C and vitamin K. A very good source of folate, vitamin A, manganese, dietary fiber, potassium, vitamin B6 and thiamin (vitamin B1). They are also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, iron, phosphorus, protein, magnesium, riboflavin (vitamin B2), vitamin E, copper and calcium. In addition to these nutrients, Brussels sprouts are chocked with antioxidants and phytochemicals including sulforaphane, indoles, glucosinolates, isothiocynates, coumarins, dithiolthiones, and phenols.
Perfectly cooked Brussels sprouts have a crisp, dense texture and a slightly sweet, bright and “green” taste.
The most common method of preparing Brussels sprouts for cooking is to remove the buds from the stalk, cutting away any surplus stem and removing any yellow or surface leaves that are loosened by this cut. Brussels sprouts are usually cooked whole though they can be halved or quartered. Cooking methods include boiling or braising, steaming and roasting. To ensure even cooking throughout, buds of a similar size should always be chosen.
Whatever cooking method is employed, care must be taken not to overcook. Overcooking releases the sulfurous smelling glucosinolate and, sinigrin. This is the reason many people profess to dislike Brussels sprouts; only ever having tried them overcooked with the accompanying sulfuric taste and smell. Generally 6–7 minutes boiled or steamed is enough to cook, without overcooking and releasing the sinigrin.
While Brussels sprouts are usually served as a side dish, they can make a nice addition to cold salads.
A Few Quick Serving Ideas
Braise Brussels sprouts in liquid infused with your favorite herbs and spices. I know that this is not the low fat alternative – but braised in cream they are yummy!
As long as we’re talking fat filled, tasty alternatives, the addition of a little sour cream or yogurt and crumbled bacon is just delightful too.
Since cooked Brussels sprouts are small and compact, they make a great snack food that can be simply eaten as is or seasoned with salt and pepper to taste.
Combine quartered cooked Brussels sprouts with sliced red onions, walnuts and your favorite mild tasting cheese such as a goat cheese or feta. Toss with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for an exceptionally healthy, delicious side dish.