Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Brussels sprouts are a somewhat divisive food, although most people who claim to hate them have probably been scarred by encounters with horrible overcooked monstrosities in their formative years.
When prepared with a little care, sprouts are a wonderfully satisfying vegetable with a delicious, fresh, green flavour and just the right amount of crunch. They can be served simply as a side vegetable (perhaps with some chopped chestnuts or a sprinkling of sesame seeds), added to casseroles or sliced and stir-fried (try them with beef and oyster sauce).
Some sources trace sprouts back to ancient China whilst others claim they originated much later and were grown in the area around Brussels in the thirteenth century. It is known that they were not introduced to France and England until late in the eighteenth century.
Today they are eaten in N. America and Australia but remain a much more common sight on dining tables in N. Europe, and Britain in particular.
Brussels sprouts belong to the Gemmifera group of the cabbage family (Brassica oleracea). The sprouts grow as head buds around a central stem.
Cruciferous vegetables - such as sprouts, broccoli and cabbage - are linked with a wide range of health benefits. Brussels are a good source of vitamins A and C, iron, potassium and fibre.
Look for firm, compact sprouts with green unwithered leaves. The base end discolours quickly after harvesting and will often be slightly yellow-brown but should not be dark. Fresh sprouts have no odour or a delicate smell. Those sold on the stalk are likely to stay in better condition for longer. Choose small, evenly-sized sprouts for ease of cooking.
Sprouts should be kept cool at all times and eaten before the leaves discolour or they develop a strong smell.
Soak in lukewarm water for 10 minutes to draw out any insects in the leaves, then rinse under running water. Trim the ends but not right up to the base or the leaves will fall off during cooking. Remove any tired looking outer leaves. Some recommend cutting crosses in the bases but this seems unnecessary.
Simmer uncovered in an equal volume of salted water (alternatively steam or slice and stir-fry). Overcooked and undercooked sprouts are unpleasant so it's important to check for doneness by inserting a knife tip into the stem end and removing the sprouts when they're just tender (typically between 6 and 12 minutes when simmering; the off-putting sulphurous cabbagey smell is a sign of overcooking). Drain, return to the hot pan and shake for a few seconds to remove excess water. Serve immediately (the flavour suffers if sprouts are kept warm for long).