A relative newcomer to the vegetable world, Brussels sprouts have only been around for five hundred years, whereas there are records of cabbages that go back three thousand years. Why the name “Brussels” sprouts? It is thought that they have always grown near Brussels and they became associated with the area. Thomas Jefferson was an avid farmer, and his are the first records of Brussels sprouts in North America from 1812. Chances are good he brought them here originally.
As a commercial crop, Brussels sprouts only go back around one hundred years, when the first ones were grown for market in San Mateo County. The cool and misty conditions of coastal Northern California are similar to Brussels sprouts home turf, and they soon spread south through Santa Cruz County to Monterey County, where you see them along the roads sharing the same fields where artichokes are grown. This area accounts for the majority (~90-95%) of the United States production, most of which ends up frozen.
Related to cabbage, the plant reaches around four feet tall with leaves similar to collard greens growing off the top (which are sometimes cooked like collards). The stalk is thick like broccoli with mini cabbages growing in a spiral pattern off the side of the stalk. The sprouts measure from one-half an inch up one and three-quarters of an inch, with the best in the half-inch to one and one-quarter inch size. When selecting, no matter the size, select tight sprouts that feel very firm and seem heavy for their size. Look for uniform green coloring and avoid any that are yellowing, that show “rust” spots, and those with lots of little bore holes near the base.
Although available year round, Brussels sprouts are best during colder months, November though March, but the best ones are harvested after a light frost. It seems the cold makes the sprouts sweeter. They are sold loose, in baskets (usually the same pint baskets you see with strawberries), and on the stalk. If you get them on the stalk, you can trim the base and keep it in water to keep the sprouts for a day or two, as they probably won’t fit in the refrigerator like that. Brussels sprouts are not good keepers and should be eaten soon after purchase. To store them, put paper toweling in a plastic tub, put the sprouts in, and cover with more paper towel, then the lid. Store in the colder part of the refrigerator.
While talking sprouts with Tom Hudson of Swanton Berry Farm, I commented on the smaller size of their sprouts. Tom pointed out that since organic sprouts are not getting pesticides, they are harvested earlier — smaller — to avoid bug damage. Those bore holes I mentioned earlier may be a sign that the inside of the sprout is holey and will be unpleasant when cooked.
Although loathed by some, Brussels sprouts are very good for you. They contain a fair amount of protein for a vegetable (about 3 gm/serving) although it is not a “complete” protein. Good levels of dietary fiber team up with high levels of vitamin C (85 mg, or 142% of the adult RDA), vitamin A, and folacin, making this a good vegetable to get to know. As a cruciferous vegetable, it contains cancer-fighting properties of Indole-3-carbinol in addition to vitamin C and betacarotene.
The thing that makes Brussels sprouts easy to dislike for so many (I admit: I was one of those people!) is overcooking, which renders them into a mushy, stinky mess. The stink comes from glucosinolate sinigrin (the compound thought to fight colon cancer) that is released when sprouts are cooked too long. To avoid this whiff of brimstone, avoid overcooking. Better yet, try added raw, shredded sprouts to a salad.
When cooking Brussels sprouts, my mantra is: “Cook carefully, season aggressively.” I feel these vegetables can take a lot of flavor, and have been experimenting this year with different preparations. The base, though, is usually a careful blanching in plenty of salted water. Remove the sprouts from the heat as soon as the color turns bright green, and immediately immerse them in an ice water bath to arrest the cooking. The final cooking is to season and heat them. So, this winter, treat yourself to a hometown favorite, and with a little care and some big flavors, you might find a new favorite and do yourself some good at the same time.
RECIPES: Basic Braised Brussels Sprouts; Beer Braised Brussels Sprouts with Mustard Sauce; Brussels Sprouts with Walnuts and Arugula, Easy Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Balsamic Vinegar and Honey Glaze,
Brussels Sprouts with Almonds Slaw, Brussels Sprouts with Apple Gastrique
Photo by Brent Hofacker.