Friday, April 1, 2011
Magnificent Brussels Sprouts - courtesy of my mom and Julia Child
I don't remember having Brussels sprouts at all as a child, though apparently we did. All I really knew about them was that people didn't seem to like them - every mention of them I'd ever heard treated them as a symbolic of the struggle of parents to make their children eat overcooked, tasteless vegetables. In fact, I heard a story recently about my friend's uncle who, as a child, dropped his unwanted sprouts through a hole in a hollow table leg so that when, decades later, the family had to take the table apart, they found dozens of shriveled Brussels sprouts. I don't remember ever expecting that they were bad - we ate loads of greens and cabbage-type-things - but I just didn't know. So, when I had them for the first time as an adult, they were a revelation.
Admittedly, no one in the world seems to love cabbage as much as I do, but I feel confident that this is objectively tasty. It's based on my mom's recipe, which flavors the sprouts with butter and breadcrumbs, but for the optimal color and texture, I've boiled them briefly then baked/braised à la Julia Child's method from Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
I know this isn't a terribly original approach; one friend insists that pan roasting is the only conceivable way to cook the sprouts, though I think millions of miserable 1950s children would beg to differ. Even a fellow I got to talking to today at a restaurant bar took care to share with me his favorite recipe, which was remarkably like mine, only including Parmesan. Still, in a time when there's no shortage of culinary reinvention, there's a great deal of comfort and enjoyment to be had in the classics. When you're working with something so simple, the real glory is in the execution. The first time I tested this recipe, I put the butter over the breadcrumbs, and forgot to salt and pepper them while they were still naked, and that made all the difference. As usual, a little bit of technique goes a long, long way.
Magnificent Brussels Sprouts
2 lbs loose fresh Brussels sprouts (about 30 medium sprouts, as close in size as possible)
1 cup breadcrumbs
5 Tbsp. Earth Balance, melted
Freshly-cracked black pepper
Bring 7-8 quarts of salted water to a rapid boil. While you wait for it to boil, prep the sprouts. With a small knife, trim the base of the sprout to remove any unappealing-looking bits of stem. Pierce the base of the sprout with the tip of the knife to help the dense base cook more quickly. Remove any yellowish or wilty outer leaves. Rinse and drain in cold water. If you are using local and organic Brussels sprouts, home-grown ones, or any that may have been grown without any kind of anti-pest measure, you may want to soak them for 10 or 15 minutes in salted water to encourage any burrowing insects to extract themselves. After trimming the bases, you'll have some leaves that have fallen off, which you can use. You may want to save them for making veggie broth, but if you'd like to eat them now, you can blanch in the boiling water for a couple of minutes after you pull the sprouts out and eat them with some melted Earth Balance, a little salt and pepper, and even some leftover breadcrumbs. I tend to get peckish while I cook, so it's nice to have a little snack under the guise of preventing waste.
When your water is boiling rapidly, drop in your sprouts. Bring the water back up to a full boil as quickly as possible. Boil ("slowly," according to Julia - I imagine she means letting the water drop to a nice rolling boil rather than a more frantic, rapid boil) uncovered for 6-8 minutes, until almost tender. Remove and drain, then spread out in a single layer, not touching each other, on a clean towel to let them cool. Preheat your oven to 350. Melt the earth balance over medium-low heat on the stove or in the microwave.
When they've cooled and dried enough to handle, cut the sprouts in half lengthwise to get a nice cross-section. Rub some Earth Balance along the bottom of a pan with a cover or oven-safe casserole, whatever will hold your sprouts in a single layer. Place them in the pan with the cut sides up, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Drizzle melted Earth Balance generously over the sprouts, then sprinkle with bread crumbs into each, trying to make an even layer.
Bake at 350 for about 20 minutes, until the sprouts are tender. Serve immediately.