The Allure of Sprouts

It was the northern winter of ’80/’81 and I was in Madrid. I am a carnivore by habit but, after months of the heavy meat that had sustained me around Western Europe, I was looking for something a little lighter for that particular day’s lunch. My handy guide had recommended it and I recall I had to climb up some stairs to access it. Under ‘el vegetal’, on the restaurant’s bill of fare, I noticed an item, kindly translated into sprouts and bacon, which I duly ordered. I was mildly surprised that, when it arrived, the sprouts in question were of the Brussels variety. It smelt delicious and truly was. As for taste, it was nothing akin to how we served up this vegetable normally back home. Somehow roasted in the fat of the bacon, they melted in my mouth. In the end, being so, they were probably no more a healthier option than the tucker I’d normally ingest, but they were a revelation.


Now I have always been particularly partial to Brussels sprouts – and yes, almost in totality, the boiled version. My dear mother, in contrast to the mums John Lethlean disses in his column for the weekend Oz (see below), produced something that certainly did not ‘…smell like rotten eggs.’ So delicious was my mum’s tried and tested methodology I’ve followed suit all my adult life, never, for some reason, attempting to replicate what I devoured all those decades ago in a foreign country. Yep, I probably over-boil the delights to within a millimetre of disintegration, but served up with lashings of Western Star butter and black pepper, I am in vegetable heaven. To my mind, they are only surpassed by the king of legumes – broad beans. Reading that aforementioned scribbling by Lethlean took me back.

Leigh was scrabbling away in the back of the fridge the other day and declared she had found some bacon. Knowing my adoration of the humble sprout, she then inquired, ‘How would you like it if I cooked you up some Brussels sprouts with this leftover bacon?’ Just imagine my delight, just days after perusing said article, to be asked that question. Now she claims she has cooked it for me before, but I have no recollection of her doing so. Now you would think I would remember it, wouldn’t you? And what my dearest produced was every bit as delicious and more-ish as occurred in that Spanish eatery way, way back. It was decidedly memorable.

Basically Leigh just used JL’s method – she fried up the bacon, chopped the sprouts into small pieces adding them to the bacon and its fat. As they cooked, she added water to keep it all moist, deglazing the pan with a small amount of pepper, salt and garlic. Divine. She’s promised them again for me in the not too distant future. Can’t wait.

Now the sprouts in Madrid were so tantalising I decided to go back to the same place the next day, my last in the city, intending to order the identical dish. But when I saw their paella being presented at a nearby table, I changed my mind. Big mistake. Sure, it tasted good too, but the after effects lingered long – fully a week or more. I remember it was Amsterdam before I fully unclogged. Should have stuck to the sprouts.

Thanks Brussels – John Lethlean – !6.07.16

It’s been a poor year for Brussels. Let’s make that appalling. The terrorist attacks by IS. Brexit. The continuing, downtrodden reputation of the cruciferous vegetable that carries the city’s name wherever underrated vegetables are eaten. Why does everyone turn their nose up at sprouts?
Is it because of that largely British-inspired technique of boil-and-serve many of us endured as kids? It is, after all, a well-known fact that overcooking sprouts – the default position of most mums, once – makes them smell like rotten eggs because of the high levels of sulforaphane they contain. Well-known now, maybe.
A few chefs fight the good fight – traditional with lardons or chestnuts; modern and raw, using leaves as a salad or shredded in a ‘slaw – but on the whole, sprouts remain about as popular as Clive Palmer. It’s time for change.
Brussels sprouts are delicious, texturally interesting if cooked the right way, full of good stuff that makes you healthy and a fine winter alternative to carb-heavy side dishes.
Two interesting facts. There are apparently more than 110 different varieties of sprouts. Commonly, in Australia, we see Churchill, Napoleon, Napoleon F1, Hastings and Arundel. And I have read that there are more than 9000 documented ways to cook a sprout. Let’s make that more than 9001, shall we?
Given that they appear in dishes going as far back as Roman times, it seems appropriate to give them a kind of Italian roasting. First, get a baking dish large enough to accommodate your new green friends loosely. They need room. Trim the white bases a little and cut an X across the crowns; this helps heat and flavours to penetrate and aids crisping.
Now, using your own preference for flavour emphasis, finely slice garlic, crumble dried whole chillies and chop anchovy fillets. I find about six anchovy fillets, one organic garlic clove and two small dried chillies for about 400g of sprouts does the trick, but my palate’s programmed to a kind of
Sicilian/Calabrian in-your-faceness. You might add some finely sliced onion at this point. Add sprouts and jumble it with olive oil and pepper; don’t salt.
Now, it’s a two-stage cook. First, with about 100ml of water in the pan, give the sprouts around 25 minutes in the oven on 150°C (fan). This will steam them through. When the water is fully evaporated, pull the pan out, add some more oil, swish around a bit and hit the throttle. Take your oven up to 11. Wait until it reaches maximum heat then give the sprouts a serious blast for about 10 minutes. But keep an eye on them, because different ovens do different things.
The point is this: when the extremities are turning brown, crisp and slightly caramelised, they will have a brilliant nutty/sweet flavour. The outer leaves will be a treat to chew/crunch and the inner sprout soft-ish and fragrant.
And all that salty/garlicky anchovy flavour will be addictive. You could even deglaze the pan at this point, pouring the juices over the veggies. It’s more than good. I don’t expect this to make the Belgians feel better about their terrible year. But it should make you feel better about winter.

john l

More recipes for Brussels Sprouts here =

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