Brussels Sprouts: A Horror Film

Happy Halloween! In keeping with the season I have a tricky treat for you. This treat is in the form of a mini-horror film I call Brussels Sprouts: The Revenge Of Farmer John! 

You might call it Brussels Sprouts: All Smelly and Green. Because be they supernatural or merely tricky to cook. I say they are indeed a treat most any time of the year.

But it’s true many people are afraid of Brussels sprouts even horrified because they are often prepared in a horrifying manner – boiled.

Boiling really does not suit Brussels sprouts. That is because they are technically a cruciferous vegetable. Which is a fancy way of saying cabbage. As we all know, boiled cabbage can be stinky and mushy. So too, Brussels sprouts. In fact, in French they are called les choux de Bruxelles, which means cabbages of Brussels. So all the mistakes people make cooking cabbage can be amplified in these “little cabbages”.

Brussels Sprouts Horror FilmCruciferous vegetables get their name because their flowers have 4 petals and look like a cross (crucifix). Other cruciferous vegetables include arugula, bok choy, broccoli, collards, kale, mustard greens, rutabaga, turnip greens, and watercress – now doesn’t this list look a lot like the list your doctor uses when he/she says you should eat more dark, leafy greens?

Well listen to your doctor because cruciferous veggies all contain phytochemicals — vitamins and minerals, and lots of healthy fiber which some studies suggest lower your risk of cancer!

Unfortunately, these phytochemicals break down somewhat in cooking. This lessens their health benefits, and can also release a vile sulphery smell. Many people can’t get past the smell.

It does not have to be that way. There are lots of great ways to cook Brussels sprouts. One of the simplest is also one of the tastiest! I like to toss them with a little olive oil, coarse salt and cracked black pepper. I then roast them in a 400-degree oven til they get browned and crackly. A hot oven ensures you’ll get good caramelization on the outside with out cooking the insides to a smelly pulp!

But my favorite ways is to braise or glaze them. You can keep a good texture this way and also build up a nuanced palate of flavors.

In this video, you can watch me conquer the little demons by braising them in a balsamic/chicken broth. It’s sweet. It’s savory. It’s salty. It works.

By calling this technique braising, I do not want to give you the impression that they need to cook for hours like braised meat. The process is really more of a glazing. You can do it with almost any vegetable, but it’s particularly suited to root vegetables (you know what those are, so I won’t list them here).

The key to getting a good glazing is to start with vegetables that are uniform in size. Brussels sprouts are such a vegetable by nature, but if you do this with other vegetables cut them into like sized chunks.

The next step is to add about 1 inch of braising liquid to the pan with your veggies. The composition of the liquid is important. It should have some fats in it so that it can thicken a bit as it cooks.

Butter is always good in generic vegetable glazing. In this recipe I use a combination of rendered pancetta fat and chicken broth. I add the balsamic for flavor. It may seem like a lot of balsamic, but trust me, in combination with the other ingredients – it mellows!

Cooking times will vary depending on the veggies, but your goal is to reduce the sauce until the veggies are shiny and flavorful, but not overcooked. I have been known to remove the vegetable one piece at a time when I think they are done just right. You don’t need to be as crazy as me though!

These are quite good served hot or room temperature, but refrigerating and re-heating affects the texture some. So I leave that decision to you.

The toasted breadcrumbs are a nice Sicilian touch. They add another level of texture and it’s a good way to add some contrast of flavor as well. The braised sprouts are fairly consistent in flavor and texture. The breadcrumbs can be as flavorful as you like. I’ve done them with lots of garlic too.  Anyway, it’s just a great counterpoint the veggies.

I hope I have not confused you. I realize I am talking about braising vegetables in general as well as braising Brussels sprouts particularly in pancetta and balsamic (all at the same time). It’s up to you to root through what I’ve written and apply the technique to your own veggies. Because that’s what good cooking is all about anyway!

Braised Brussels Sprouts with Pancetta & Balsamic serves 6 CLICK for Printable Recipe

  • 2 c fresh breadcrumbs
  • 2 t oregano leaves, minced
  • 2 t lemon zest
  • 2 lb baby Brussels sprouts, washed and trimmed (cut larger ones in two)
  • 3 T unsalted butter
  • 1/2 c olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 c pancetta, diced into lardons
  • 2 T garlic, peeled and minced
  • 3 T red onion, minced
  • 1/2 c balsamic vinegar
  • 1 c chicken broth
  • 2 T parsley leaves, chopped

brussels sproutsHeat oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, mix breadcrumbs with the oregano and zest. Pour 1/4‑cup olive oil onto a cookie sheet, followed by the breadcrumb mixture. Mix well. Toast it in the oven, tossing frequently, until golden brown, 10 to 12 minutes.

Heat butter and remaining olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until foamy. Add the Brussels sprouts cut side down, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and saute, until bottoms lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Work in batches until all the sprouts are browned removing them to a plate when finished.

Leaving any liquids in the pan add the diced pancetta, and saute, tossing frequently, until they begin to brown.

Return all the sprouts to the pan and cook over medium high heat until well browned and softened slightly, about 8 minutes more. The pancetta will be crisp. Reduce heat; add red onion and garlic, and saute until fragrant, 2 minutes.

Increase heat to high, add balsamic vinegar and stock, and cook, tossing frequently, until sprouts are glazed and tender, about 10 minutes; add more stock if needed. Taste, adjusting seasoning if necessary, and sprinkle with chopped parsley. Transfer to a warm serving bowl and scatter breadcrumbs on top.