|Brussels Sprouts in Winter
on the North Fork of Long Island
As a boy, I cannot think of a vegetable I detested quite as much at the Brussels Sprout. These nasty little cabbages were about as appealing to me as damp pair of socks. I called them every name in the book and insisted that they were a relic of rationing during the two wars that had preceeded my arrival on the planet. I’m not sure if the cabbage-like smell was worse than the cabbage-like taste. However, my vocal protests did not stop my mother from putting them on the table regularly during those months when Canada is a frozen tundra and there’s very little choice in fresh vegetables. Since we were charter members of the Waste-Not-Want-Not Society, when we were served Brussels Sprouts, we ate Brussels Sprouts.
It was years and years later when a friend, assigned a course at our Thanksgiving, arrived with a dish of them. Lots and lots of bacon, ripe figs and balsamic vinegar had transformed my little cabbages into a true delicacy. Later, when I encountered a tiny bowl of them at David Chang’s renowned Momofuku for all of $8.00, I realized that Brussels Sprouts had come into their own. I finally got it: Brussels sprouts can be delicious. You just have to know how to cook them. And my mother, bless her, did not. To make delicious Brussels Sprouts, you need to conjure up three necessities. Fat, Salt and Timing. Fat, the flavor carrier, brings two things to this party: It helps you get a golden crunch and a gentle caramelization. Sea Salt is another way to add flavor and it’s pretty well essential here to counter the inner sweetness of the Brussels Sprout. But the final necessity is timing. Now some will argue that timing is the whole issue in cooking vegetables. Too long and you create a colorless mush, too short and you’ll have something tough on your hands. This is certainly true in the case of today’s recipe Melissa Clark published last year in The New York Times.
Now I love Melissa. She is the undisputed Queen of telling you what she did and then letting you go off on your own with, in this case, dozens of suggestions that don’t appear in the recipe: She’s used bacon and any number of pasta varieties. She’s added red wine, leeks, nuts and cheese. She’s changed cooking methods, broiling the sprouts and deep frying them. But when she settled down to write the recipe, she came out with something very straightforward, easy to follow, quick to achieve and just plain good. The Brussels sprouts can be sliced in a food processor or hand cut. She even encourages uneven slicing so that the thinner slices will get brown and crisp and the thicker ones soft and caramelized. The end result is a dinner you can get on the table in under 30 minutes. I am sure you could substitute bacon for pancetta but as Melissa points out pancetta is unsmoked so your get more pork flavor to go with the sweetness of the sprouts. You can even make it without pancetta or bacon and just up the cheese quotient at the end. Here’s the recipe: