The way I figure it, Brussels sprouts may have been cultivated by ancient Romans, embraced later by other cultures along the Mediterranean and finally perfected outside the Belgian city of Brussels, of all places. But they were saved for our modern world by chefs armed with one thing and one thing only – bacon.
Ask around. Maybe you, and surely most of the people you know, learned to love this unique “cabbage-like” flavor when bacon prevented us from tasting actual Brussels sprouts at all.
This came about, of course, perhaps a decade ago, when otherwise intelligent (or at least food savvy) fine-dining chefs had the dumb nerve to declare: “Everything’s better with bacon.” Everything is NOT better with bacon, or with anything else. Some things are great together, but many things are not. We had to keep our heads down for several years, ducking bacon martinis and bacon brownies. Happily, those days of stupidity seem to be behind us.
Even more happily, those days left me loving Brussels sprouts, since in the process we learned that boiling and steaming are not really our friends. What Brussels sprouts need, far more than bacon, is caramelization – any process that lets intense heat draw out the natural sugars inside and turn the outside brown, pleasantly crispy and slightly sweet. Far more than bacon, caramelization is nearly always our friend.
It has, no question, been a long, hard road for the Brussels sprout. Yes, it has been with us a very long time – not actually a “baby cabbage” picked early (as some think) but a relative of the larger cabbage used in sauerkraut, coleslaw and Irish corned beef and cabbage. Other relatives include broccoli, kale, collard greens and kohlrabi – all leafy green vegetables with flavors and smells that divide the human race into warring camps.
There is little detail about ancient Romans enjoying Brussels sprouts, beyond the fact that it sounds like they did. Still, we’re certain the vegetable made the trek north during the Middle Ages, taking up permanent residence in what are sometimes called the Low Countries, today’s Belgium and the Netherlands. Both places love Brussels sprouts anytime they can get them – there in the cooler months, but here pretty much anytime.
The reason, in a word, is California. Most Brussels sprouts at our local supermarkets are grown there, like most of our everything else. California is large enough and fertile enough that many things find a way of growing somewhere most times of the year. And even if not, California simply grows enough of most things that, if not highly perishable, they stick around.
I often succumb to the convenience of buying Brussels sprouts in a string bag or a plastic box, usually in different parts of the produce section. Still, I applaud the recent trend toward offering Brussels sprouts still attached to their long, green stalk. At the very least, this presentation shows us where the things come from.
I meet people who “hate” Brussels sprouts all the time, and I’m not judgmental, since I used to hate them too. The Brussels sprouts, not the people. Eventually, so many high-profile chefs served me Brussels sprouts fried in bacon fat and/or covered in crumbled bacon that I finally shouted – Enough! The moment I realized I loved Brussels sprouts for themselves, and not merely as a delivery system for bacon, I started feeling better about myself already.
CARAMELIZED BRUSSELS SPROUTS WITH CHORIZO
Though also typically made with pork, the reddish bulk sausage sold as “Mexican-style” chorizo brings a whole different set of flavors that aren’t bacon to the table. For our money, this recipe preserves the authentic and perfect taste of caramelized Brussels sprouts, with a spicy little something extra to thank us for our true affection.
1 pound spiced chorizo, without casings or removed from casings
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 small red bell pepper, finely chopped
¼ cup Mom’s brand Special Marinara
2 pounds Brussels sprouts
Salt and pepper
Chopped green onions
Break or chop up the bulk chorizo in a pan with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Add the onion and bell pepper, stirring until chorizo is cooked through. Drain off the fat and then stir in the Mom’s sauce. Meanwhile, slice each Brussels sprout in half and briefly “par-boil” in salted water, 5-7 minutes. Place the remaining olive oil in a saute pan over high heat and caramelize the Brussels sprouts until crinkly brown around the edges. Serve the Brussels sprouts atop the saucy chorizo, with chopped green onions for garnish. Serves 6-8.