Brussels sprouts are perhaps the most steadfast contender against lima beans in the age-old battle for the Most Hated Vegetable. And that’s speaking from experience. Like many children, when I was younger, I hated Brussels sprouts (and lima beans). My mom would bathe them in a creamy white sauce, which actually is quite delicious to my now grown-up palate (as are lima beans), but back then, asking me to eat them was like asking me to consume a plate full of earthworms: No Way. As I matured, I decided to give Brussels sprouts a second chance and not being much of a cook, I boiled them the first time I made them on my own. This was a HUGE mistake. Anyone who has made Brussels sprouts in this way, and overcooked them, knows exactly why.
Brussels sprouts develop a uniquely skunky, dirty sock-like flavor, and similarly God-awful smell, when they are overcooked - especially if you boil them (never, ever boil or steam Brussels sprouts longer than 10 minutes, and if you’re cooking them whole, trim a little “X” into the base to allow the heat to penetrate the sprout). I’m convinced that this smell/flavor is the true folly of the Brussels sprout – many a parent or amateur cook has simply overcooked the poor little things. Surely this must be the reason that the plant has garnered a reputation as a Most Dreadful Food; one suitable only for a swift mouth-to-napkin maneuver as a means for delivery to the hungry canine hanging out below the dinner table, or for deposit to the bottom of the milk glass (for that opaque liquid makes an excellent hiding place for heavy, solid foods) until it can be promptly disposed of after dinner when Mom and Dad allow you to (finally) leave the dinner table...the only trick being how to get it in there without being caught, a skill my brother and I spent many a dinner of strange vegetables or liver and onions becoming proficient in. Perhaps, one could imagine, this skunky-ness is how the Brussels sprout maintains its boutique status – by weeding us out slowly, one at a time, with that gag-inducing flavor.
Carefully devised avoidance schemes aside, Brussels sprouts definitely deserve another chance. If you’ve been avoiding them because you have, like me, overcooked them at some point in your life (or if your parents did), then do yourself a favor and give these little green gems another try. If it’s your first time, ease into it: simply trim the ends, remove any loose outside leaves and cut them into quarters through the stem. Drizzle them with olive oil and roast them at 350F until they caramelize and turn golden brown, or cook them in a skillet with a little olive oil and butter (garlic too, if you’d like) until they get browned and soft and caramelized that way. LB didn’t like Brussels sprouts when I met him – just a few days ago, he asked if we could please have them as part of our Thanksgiving meal.
In an effort to branch out from our usual cooking method of skillet-roasting them, I decided to try a recipe from Body and Soul magazine: Shredded Brussels Sprouts with Pecans and Mustard Seeds. The new rage for Brussels sprouts recipes is to shred them using a food processor (thinly slicing them works just as well) and cook them down as you might do to with shredded cabbage. I’ve seen recipes that include caramelized shallots, bacon or proscuitto, and even use them as a base for a raw salad. This recipe uses only a few common ingredients and has a very light and subtle flavor, perfect as an accompaniment to a plate full of rich, decadent foods. Shredding the sprouts allows them to become meltingly tender and opens up more surface area for the caramelization reaction – what brings out all that delicious flavor (and we’re not talking about skunky, sulfury flavor here).
Better still, this recipe is healthy! I know, not only am I trying to convince you to eat Brussels sprouts – a Most Hated Vegetable – but worse, I’m adding insult to injury by offering you a recipe where you don’t have to disguise it in butter, drown it in sauce or even add that most heavenly of flavor enhancers, bacon, to it. Brussels sprouts are also packed with folate, fiber, vitamins A and C, are naturally low in fat, and contain detoxifying enzymes that are purported to reduce cancer risk. These facts make this dish an excellent entry for the theme of November’s Heart of the Matter, Holiday Food. It’s topped by heart-healthy nuts, and uses only 2 tsp. of heart-healthy olive oil for the entire 6 to 8 servings. Even though I had originally hoped to use local hazelnuts to top this dish, which I think would be excellent and add another depth of flavor the recipe, I didn’t make it to the Farmer’s Market this weekend and ended up using pecans that my grandmother sent me from her recent trip to Texas, which is what the recipe actually called for.
I’ve adapted the recipe slightly to decrease the amount of oil used, and would possibly add a little extra tang by a dash of ground mustard (or mix in a bit of Dijon mustard in a small amount of chicken stock drizzled over the top) or perhaps even some lemon zest the next time I make it because I’d like to taste a bit more of the mustard flavor than the mustard seeds alone have to offer. But over all, it’s a great new way to eat Brussels sprouts – it’s simple, subtle enough to fit in with the rest of the rich, flavorful dishes that may grace your holiday dinner table, and tangy and tasty enough to turn former Brussels sprouts haters into Brussels sprouts requesters.
Shredded Brussels Sprouts with Pecans and Mustard Seeds, serves 6 to 8
Adapted slightly from Body and Soul magazine
½ cup raw pecans (or hazelnuts!), coarsely chopped
20 oz. Brussels sprouts, ends trimmed and loose outside leaves pulled off**
2 tsp. olive oil
1 tbsp. yellow mustard seeds (whole)
2 tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 350 F, and toast pecans on a rimmed cookie sheet for about 10 minutes or until fragrant and lightly browned. Set aside.
Shred the Brussels sprouts using the shredding disk from a food processor, or halve them and then thinly slice them for a more elegant presentation. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, and add the mustard seeds to the pan, and cook until fragrant. Be careful, they’ll start to pop when they get hot! Next time I might toast them in a dry skillet and then add them back to the Brussels sprouts after heating the oil – they were difficult to move around as soon as they hit the oil. Add the Brussels sprouts and cook, stirring occasionally (Remember to let them caramelize! With a smaller amount of oil, you want to let them sit a bit longer than you might with more...) until they become tender and begin to brown – this will take about 7 – 9 minutes total. Remove from heat, stir in lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Top with pecans and serve.
**If you can, buy Brussels sprouts that are still on the stalk – this keeps them fresher for longer, maintaining their nutrients. Simply cut the bottom sprouts off the stalk and then use your thumb to “push” the rest of the sprouts off between the spiky branches. I used the sprouts from one medium-sized stalk for this recipe.