Kitchen-garden diary: in praise of Brussels sprouts

Ameer Kotecha
·3-min read
Photo credit: Natalia Yanez-Stiel
Photo credit: Natalia Yanez-Stiel

From Town & Country

Funny things sprouts. Like miniature cabbages. One of our former Ambassadors in Moscow tells an anecdote: some Refusenik Jews came round for Christmas dinner – a bronzed turkey and a great pile of sprouts prepared by the loyal diplomatic spouse. “Your chickens are bigger than ours in Russia” they commented, as they sat down to the feast, “but our cabbages are larger”.

‘Choux de Bruxelles’ sounds fancy in French. Everything does. But we know a sprout is just a sprout. The concession to health on the Christmas table. But I’m jolly glad they’re there.

Seeing them grow is quite a sight – they protrude from a central trunk like barnacles clinging to a ship’s hull. You can occasionally buy them still on the trunk but overwhelmingly you’ll pick up the buds loose. They do not require much prep: just a little trim of the base and any soiled outer leaves picked away. Some cooks like make a little criss-cross at the base to aid the penetration of heat. Do so if it makes you happy or if you need a chore to give to a bored relative, but otherwise it is hardly necessary.

And how to cook them? Ever so slightly al dente in salted butter with vacuum-packed chestnuts mixed in and plenty of black pepper on top, is as traditional as it is delicious. Nigella fries them in pancetta, adding Marsala for depth and parsley for some freshness, rather in the manner of a maître d’hôtel butter. Jamie squashes them, and gives them an Andalusian makeover with chorizo and sherry vinegar.

You can also try shredding them and frying with fatty bacon lardons as you might savoy cabbage. Or turn into something akin to creamed spinach, or a Brabant purée, hailing from the Belgian dukedom that used to centre on Brussels. And of course use in a makeshift bubble and squeak when turning your hand to leftovers.

Sprouts have a slight bitterness which is countered both by sweetness and fat. So combine them with sticky dates, caramelised chestnuts, or maple, and be liberal with the butter. Sprouts also pair curiously well with anchovy, as Ed Smith shows with his recipe for a rich gratin with cream and parmesan and an anchovy crumb.

Sprouts can even be deep-fried, as in this terrific pairing with black pudding and apple. Outside of the Christmas meal, I like them halved and stir fried in olive oil with lemon zest and fresh red chilli. Or shredded and served on their own in a great pile with soy and sesame oil as an oriental green.

Use sprout tops too – they are the plume-like head of the stalk that shelters the sprout buds below. They can be cooked like any other winter green. Paired with clementine, they make a refreshing side plate. And try to seek out flower sprouts, or kalettes, that are a hybrid of kale and Brussels sprouts and perfect for wilting in a beurre noisette, a few spoonfuls of wine vinegar and a smattering of fresh herbs.

A word of warning: every so often you will buy a batch of sprouts that will, despite all the careful cooking and bathing butter in the world, will be so mustardy, dastardly hot that they will cause steam to blow out your ears. I have found no way around it but it is rather like Russian roulette; but awfully good fun. Do not let it dissuade you. And remember, while they are obligatory on the Christmas table, they have myriad attractions and deserve to be enjoyed well into the new year. Sprouts are for life, not just for Christmas.