One Ingredient: Brussels Sprouts (Without the Bacon)
Photos by Michael Piazza / Styled by Catrine Kelty
A few years back, before my children were in school, I worked both for a city farm stand and as a personal chef for families in my neighborhood. It was a perfectly symbiotic arrangement: At the end of my market-stall days I’d bring home beautiful produce otherwise destined for the compost pile, and the following morning I’d pore over cookbooks to decide how to transform that bounty into dinner for four very distinct families' diets.
At the time, my clients were a couple of pescatarians, a health-conscious doctor and two families of omnivores who had differing ideas about bacon. So when late fall rolled around and the Brussels sprouts harvest was well under way, it was a challenge to make one single side dish out of them that would please all palates.
See, up to that point my experience with Brussels sprouts had been either as an under-seasoned, overcooked, bitter and smelly obligation on my childhood plate (sorry, Grammy!) or as a rich and bacon-y holiday side dish enjoyed only in moderation once or twice a year. They weren’t high on my list of weeknight vegetables, mostly because the only way I’d ever really liked them was full of porcine grease or bathed in turkey gravy, not exactly the light foil to an everyday meal I was looking for.
So I started experimenting with sprouts and found that with enough salt, some assertive sweet-and-sour sauces and flash-cooking to retain their natural crisp, green, vegetal crunch, I didn’t miss the bacon at all. The best result was a cider- and mustard-braised dish of sprouts I could serve to all of my clients, meat eaters or not, and my family loved it so much that it’s now our go-to Thanksgiving green vegetable.
Sometime in the last decade a very interesting thing happened to the Brussels sprout: With rising demand for farm-to-table produce and seasonal eating, creative restaurant chefs and food writers moved this humble crucifer up the scale from derided to revered, and suddenly Brussels sprouts were turning up on menus in even the most fast-casual of places. In 2009, when New York chef David Chang released his magnificent Momofuku cookbook, he offered the world a recipe for deep-fried sprouts (or cauliflower) in a fish sauce vinaigrette sprinkled with Japanese spices and crisped rice cereal. It was a game changer, and was emulated in restaurants around the country.
I still make that dish—by the letter—every few weeks in fall and winter, but I’ve also adapted it for (easier) pan-roasting, and used those same strong Asian flavors for a dipping sauce, making a pile of charred sprouts that even my fourth grader plows through without hesitation.
If your family is anything like mine—Brussels sprouts obsessed—here are a few recipes just in time for the holidays for this increasingly popular vegetable. Save the bacon for breakfast.
CERAMICS BY ELIZABETH MARTIN