The charisma of Brussels sprouts

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By Laura Pensiero, RD

Brussels sprouts are among the handful of vegetables that get better after the leaves have fallen and the first frost, or even snowfall, hits the ground. This, plus the fact that they’re so deliciously versatile, make them a perfect fit for the holiday table. If you didn’t have them on your Thanksgiving menu, make room in your Christmas or New Year’s Eve feast.

While Brussels sprouts, as advertised, have been widely enjoyed in Belgium, perhaps as early as the 1200s, I’ll always take the opportunity to credit Italians for things gustatory—and this vegetable was widely cultivated during Roman times.

These mini cabbages can be enjoyed raw, shaved into other salad greens, made into a winter coleslaw, or cooked: boiled steamed, or roasted. The latter cooking method is my favorite. Like many other people, for too many years the plain boiled Brussels sprout was my point of reference. But I came to adore this vegetable the first time I enjoyed the caramelized natural sugars straight from the roasting pan.

Speaking of sugars, the late harvest vegetables that prefer growing conditions between 45 and 75 F, really come to life after a frost or two. Local growers tell me that the freezing and thawing of Brussels sprouts cause complex carbohydrates to break down into simple sugars. The result is a sweeter less starchy vegetable. Roasting these beauties with a little oil or butter in the oven will do the rest of the work oxidizing the sugar and conferring nutty flavor and brown color. While vegetables do not contain enormous amounts of protein, they do have some, about a gram per ounce. This further contributes to coloration and depth of flavor.

So how do you get them oven ready and cooked to delectable perfection? The first step is to peel away any loose leaves not snug to the vegetables–these will cook too fast, over brown and give a burnt taste to the entire batch. Next trim off the bottom end taking care not to go too high up the stem; leaving the stem intact keeps the vegetable unified during cooking, tossing, and/or stirring. Cutting the Brussels sprout is where people go in different directions. The cabbage-like ball can be left whole, but a young sweet one will be dense and hard–you run the risk of overbrowning the outside as you wait for the inside to tenderize. Depending on size, I find them best halved or quartered. Again, the cut should be lengthwise up the stem, allowing the sprout to hold together.

Now the fun part, roasting. Surface area is important for caramelization. Use the correct size roasting pan. Too small, the crowded vegetables will steam rather than brown. Too large, big risk of overbrowning/burning. The sprouts, like any vegetable you roast, should be in an even layer with full contact to the roasting pan. A little bit of fat is absolutely essential to get the sugars sizzling and browning. I prefer olive oil to butter because of its higher smoke point. With butter you run the risk of burning. If you like the buttery flavor, stir a bit in at the end when removing from the oven.

Speaking of additions to the sprouts, they’re limitless and yummy (see below). As far as oven temperature, you can go HOT, 425 – 450 F, in the beginning to get things started then reduce the heat to 350-375F, or you can keep it steady at around 400 F, stirring here and there as they cook for about 25 minutes. If you notice over browning, simply reduce the oven temperature slightly and tent loosely with foil the way you would a chicken or turkey as it finishes cooking.

Those who say, “If it tastes good, it can’t be good for you,” never met a Brussels sprout. A member of the cruciferous family (kale, cabbage, kohlrabi, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.), it not only has that yin-yang of sweet and slightly bitter like its cousins, but it also contains all those 10-syllable phytochemicals that ward off carcinogens, positively affect hormones, reduce blood cholesterol, and bolster our immune systems. They’re also a very good source of many essential vitamins, including vitamin C and folate, as well as fiber. One cooked cup of Brussels sprouts offers all of this with only 55 calories.

Laura Pensiero, a registered dietician, is founder and creative force behind Gigi Hudson Valley, which operates the award-winning Gigi Trattoria in Rhinebeck plus a catering business. She is author of Hudson Valley Mediterranean cookbook.

What to add to Brussels sprouts

Bacon (pork or turkey) or pancetta
Roasted chestnuts
Pomegranate seeds
Caramelized onions or shallots
Pumpkin seeds
Toasted almond slivers, walnut halves or pecans
Other vegetables great for roasting (i.e. butternut squash, mushrooms, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, and so on)
A dash of maple syrup or honey (at the end of cooking – put in too early, it’ll burn)
A bit of grated citrus zest (after cooking)
A dash of cayenne to lift and balance those sweet flavors
A dash of smoked paprika (for that smoky flavor without the bacon)

Roasted Maple Brussels Sprouts with Pancetta and Chestnuts

Makes 6 to 8 servings

This oven caramelized version has all that’s hard to resist: a hint of sweet and spice from maple syrup and cayenne, slightly bitter Brussels sprouts, earthy chestnuts and BACON!  Italian bacon that is. It’s an easy side, which can be made in advance, and offers a colorful and delicious preparation for the holiday table or for autumn and winter meals.

1 tablespoon olive oil
4 ounces pancetta (optional), diced
2 cups fresh roasted chestnuts* (approximately ¾ pound in shell)
2 pounds Brussels sprouts, ends trimmed and halved (quartered if large)
Salt and pepper
¼ cup warm water
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
Pinch cayenne

*Substitute peeled, frozen chestnuts if desired.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

Roasting efficiently removes the shell and richens the flavor of chestnuts. Using knife tip, cut small “X”  on the flat side of outer shell, then spread on baking pan. Roast for 10 to 15 minutes; you will see the skin curling away and the chestnut taking on a golden color. Remove from oven and let cool slightly. The shells can easily be removed. Set aside chestnuts.

Reduce oven to 400 F.

Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large (3-4 quart) sauté pan or skillet over medium-high heat. Add pancetta and cook, stirring often, until pancetta renders its fat and is lightly browned. Add chestnuts, toss or stir to combine, then cook about 1 minute. Add Brussels sprouts and cook, tossing or stirring, about 2 minutes. Transfer vegetables to large rimmed baking pan or roasting pan; they should spread out in one layer. Season with salt and pepper, and roast in upper third of oven, stirring once halfway through roasting, until vegetables are golden and tender, 25 to 30 minutes.  Use the tip of a sharp paring knife to test the doneness at the base of a Brussels sprout; it should insert easily.  In a small bowl or cup, stir together the water, maple syrup and cayenne. Pour the mixture into the hot baking sheet, using a wooden spoon to dissolve any browned bits.  Return pan to oven and cook another 5 minutes.  Serve hot or warm family-style in festive bowl.

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