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Brussels sprouts gaining respect, with help from bacon

Wed., June 25, 2014

Brussels sprout, sautéed in butter, lemon and ginger. (Colin Mulvany)
Brussels sprout, sautéed in butter, lemon and ginger. (Colin Mulvany)

You know Brussels sprouts are starting to get hip when they hit “Portlandia.”

In its recent “Celery” episode, the cable comedy series featured this exchange between vegetable brokers:

“Brussels sprouts are back – don’t know how you did it, Bill.”

“They sell themselves. … Just wanted to announce that we’ve just gotten an account with Virgin Airlines for Brussels sprouts to be featured on the menu on their flights as a dessert. Honey and maple syrup.”

Actually, that’s no joke. Well, the dessert part, maybe, but maple syrup is among the trendier ingredients appearing in Brussels sprouts recipes these days, along with the likes of figs, pine nuts and, of course, bacon.

As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni put it, “Today’s Brussels sprouts – crunchy, caramelized at the edges and not infrequently mingled with bacon – are nothing like yesteryear’s, and there are two important morals in that. First: An ostracized vegetable may simply be a vegetable that hasn’t met the right cook or cooking method. Second: Bacon redeems everything.”

Or, if you want to be truly Northwest-trendy, Ninkasi Brewing’s website has a recipe for Brussels sprouts sautéed with bacon, maple syrup and Believer Double Red Ale ( recipes/5).

But Brussels sprouts don’t have to be all tarted up to get the party started. The junior members of the far-from-pretentious cabbage family do just fine in simpler preparations, with plainer old pals like lemon, mustard and the slightly sexier balsamic vinegar.

Whatever you pair them with, the key is not overcooking them, like those boiled-to-death Brussels sprouts of many a childhood nightmare. That not only breaks down their sulfur compounds, releasing a foul aroma, but also destroys their texture, color and considerable store of vitamin C – just one of their many nutritional assets, along with vitamin A, cancer-fighting phytonutrients, folic acid and fiber. (They’re prescribed for digestive health in Chinese medicine.)

Because Brussels sprouts are so dense, they can be tricky to cook through on the inside before the outside gets overdone. When using whole sprouts, be sure to trim the ends, then cut cross-shaped slashes to speed internal cooking. In a skillet, one popular trick is halving them and cooking them cut-side down until browned and tender. For roasting, try starting out at a more moderate 350 degrees to soften the sprouts, then increase the heat to 400 degrees or more to crisp them up.

Those still shell-shocked by their early experiences will be happy to hear that experiments in cross-pollination over the past 20 years have produced sweeter sprouts. For the best flavor, choose smaller ones with bright green (not yellowed), tightly packed leaves; keeping their sizes similar will help them cook evenly. If you can find them still on the stalk, they’ll be cheaper and last longer. Loose sprouts keep well unwashed and refrigerated in a plastic bag for three to five days.

While available, and enjoyable, year-round, Brussels sprouts favor cooler growing temperatures. Some say they’re at their sweetest and best following a frost or two, which may account for their popularity at the Thanksgiving table.

That gives you plenty of time to practice with them now. And if, despite your best efforts, your sprouts do turn out a bit bitter, well … pass the syrup, please.

Lemon Ginger Butter Glazed Carrots and Brussels Sprouts

This 1997 recipe from the American Dairy Association is one I’ve made regularly for my sprouts-loving spouse (usually as an accompaniment to salmon). The carrots contribute color and sweetness; be sure not to overcook the vegetables, they should be tender but still firm. I always use fresh ginger, and get good results with as little as 2 tablespoons of butter.

1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch slices

12 ounces fresh Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved

1/2 cup unsalted butter (or less, to taste)

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger (or 1/2 teaspoon ground)

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons grated lemon peel

1 teaspoon sugar

1 tablespoon fresh minced parsley

Salt and pepper to taste

In a large saucepan of boiling, salted water, cook carrots and Brussels sprouts just until tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove vegetables from pan and drain well.

In the same saucepan, melt butter. Add ginger and cook 2 minutes. Add lemon juice and peel, sugar, cooked vegetables and parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Yield: 8 servings

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Bacon, Pecans and Maple Syrup

Here’s a more modern take, from It’s best to add balsamic vinegar to the already cooked sprouts, or at least toward the end of oven roasting, so it doesn’t burn; similarly, nuts are better roasted separately and added to the finished dish.

1/2 cup pecans

6 slices bacon

2 pounds Brussels sprouts, halved (stem and ragged outer leaves removed)

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon maple syrup

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with heavy duty aluminum foil.

Place pecans on the prepared baking sheet and bake until lightly toasted and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Keep a close eye on them, as they can burn fast. Transfer the pecans to a cutting board and chop coarsely. Set aside.

Turn the oven heat up to 400 degrees. Lay the bacon strips out flat on the same foil-lined baking sheet, leaving space in between so they don’t overlap. Roast for 12 to 20 minutes, rotating the pan from front to back midway through, until the bacon is crisp (cooking time will depend on thickness of bacon). Transfer bacon to a plate lined with paper towels; pour rendered bacon fat into a small dish and then discard aluminum foil. When bacon is cool, finely chop.

Turn the oven heat up to 425 degrees, and line the baking sheet with fresh aluminum foil. Using a rubber spatula, toss the Brussels sprouts with the rendered bacon fat, olive oil, salt and pepper directly on the baking sheet. Roast, stirring midway through with rubber spatula to promote even browning, until Brussels sprouts are tender and caramelized, about 20 minutes. Add balsamic vinegar and maple syrup and toss to coat evenly. Taste and adjust seasoning, then transfer to a serving dish. Right before serving, top with chopped pecans and bacon. Serve hot or warm.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Hashed Brussels Sprouts with Lemon Zest

Shredded sprouts are gaining popularity in everything from salads to pizza toppings. This simple but satisfying New York Times recipe was adapted from “The Union Square Cafe Cookbook,” by Michael Romano and Danny Meyer. Using poppy seeds is a nice touch for lemon-poppy fans.

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus grated zest of 1 lemon

2 pounds Brussels sprouts

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons butter

3 garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons black mustard seeds, cumin seeds or poppy seeds

1/4 cup dry white wine or vermouth

Salt and pepper to taste

Place lemon juice in a large bowl. Cut bottoms off sprouts, and discard. Halve sprouts lengthwise, and thinly slice them crosswise. The slices toward the stem end should be thinner, to help pieces cook evenly. As you work, transfer slices into bowl with lemon juice. When all sprouts are sliced toss them in juice and separate leaves. (Recipe can be prepared to this point and refrigerated, covered, for up to 3 hours.)

When ready to serve, heat oil and butter over medium-high heat in a skillet large enough to hold all sprouts. When very hot add sprouts, garlic and seeds, and cook, stirring often, until sprouts are wilted and lightly cooked, but still bright green and crisp, about 4 minutes. Some leaves might brown slightly.

Add wine, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, 1 minute more. Turn off heat, add salt and pepper to taste and stir in the lemon zest, reserving a little for top of dish. Transfer to a serving bowl, sprinkle with remaining zest and serve.

Yield: 10 servings.

Pasta Shells with Chicken and Brussels Sprouts

Sprouts add color, texture and tang to this otherwise plain pasta preparation from Food & Wine, courtesy of This also would be good with some capers tossed in, or a little cream.

2 tablespoons oil

3 tablespoons butter

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 1 1/3 pounds)

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper

1/2 red onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

3/4 pound fresh Brussels sprouts (or one 10-ounce package frozen), cut into quarters from top to stem end

1 cup canned low-sodium chicken broth or homemade stock

1/8 teaspoon dried red-pepper flakes

1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 pound medium pasta shells

In a large nonstick frying pan, heat 1 tablespoon each of the oil and the butter over moderate heat. Season the chicken with 1/4 teaspoon each of the salt and pepper. Cook the breasts until browned and just done, 4 to 5 minutes per side. Remove the chicken from the pan and let it rest for 5 minutes. Cut into small pieces.

In the same pan, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil over moderately low heat. Add the red onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until starting to soften, about 3 minutes. Stir in the garlic, Brussels sprouts, broth and red-pepper flakes. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, until the Brussels sprouts are just done, about 5 minutes. Add the chicken, lemon juice, parsley, Parmesan, and the remaining 2 tablespoons butter, ¾ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Remove from the heat.

Meanwhile, in a large pot of boiling, salted water, cook the pasta until just done, about 10 minutes. Drain and toss with the sauce.

Yield: 4 servings

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